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Type of Discrimination in the Workplace that May be Legal


Employment discrimination refers to the many ways that employers treat employees and applicants differently based on various protected categories. That mistreatment is illegal under several federal anti-discrimination laws. Despite all of that, there are many situations where employers can discriminate against people during the hiring process and it may not be illegal. Here are some examples.

Discrimination Based on Physical Appearance

There are no federal laws that prohibit discriminating against someone simply based on their appearance. For instance, if a hiring manager chooses not to hire people who are very attractive or people who are not considered attractive by most, that is not considered unlawful discrimination. However, if female employees are held to a different standard based on appearance than men are, that could very likely be illegal.

Discrimination Based on Weight

While there may be some states that have enacted protections against weight discrimination, this type of discrimination often falls under the same concept as discrimination based on appearance. However, someone who is morbidly obese may be protected by disability discrimination statutes. Just like appearance discrimination, if women are held to a different standard based on weight, that could be gender discrimination. Also, if an employee must seek treatment for a medical condition that is related to their weight and they miss work, they may be protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Discrimination Based on Favoritism or Nepotism

It is not illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of their personality, just as it is not illegal for employers to favor some employees over others as long as it is not based on a protected characteristic. Employees with “attitude problems” cannot expect to be protected for termination if they don’t work well with others or cause morale in the office to plummet. A tricky situation is when an employee complains about a supervisor displaying favoritism and the employer takes adverse action against that employee for doing so. It becomes a legal issue if the employee’s complaint is based on actual unlawful discrimination.

Much like favoritism, it is generally not illegal to hire or favor your relatives. This is particularly true with private businesses. Government employment can be more complicated due to issues of conflict of interest. As always, any type of favoritism could potentially be unlawful if it adversely impacts employees on the basis of a protected category.

Discrimination Based on Credit History or Bankruptcy

It is not illegal in most states to refuse to hire an applicant because they have bad credit or because they have filed for bankruptcy. If an employer chooses to run a credit check on a potential employee, they must be sure to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The Bankruptcy Act does not allow employers to discriminate against current employees based on their bankruptcy status or their association with someone who has filed for bankruptcy. But most federal courts, including our 11th Circuit, have held that prohibition does not apply to job applicants.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Michel | King. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!

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