Protected Classes and Avoiding Discrimination

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Earlier this month I turned 40, which means I joined a new protected class. In the U.S., discriminating against someone based on age is prohibited. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sets the bar at age at 40 or older. This is a way to protect older workers from companies who may give preferential treatment to younger workers. To celebrate my new membership in this protected class, I thought it was a good time to look at protected classes and some steps to avoid discrimination in the workplace.

What is a Protected Class?

Quite simply, a protected class is a characteristic that cannot be targeted for discrimination. Under federal law, protected classes include sex, age, race, color, national origin, citizenship, religion, pregnancy, familial status, disability status, veteran status and genetic information. Some states include other protected classes such as sexual orientation and gender identity. Even if your state does not include extra protected classes like sexual orientation, it is a good idea to include them in your policy against discrimination and to train managers to make decisions based on work performance and experience rather than identity categories.

Discrimination occurs when an employment decision is made based on a person’s protected class. For example, suppose a man and a woman are up for a promotion. They have similar backgrounds and work performance, but the hiring manager decides to hire the man because the woman is in her 30s and recently married, and he is worried that she will soon get pregnant and need to take time off for that. This is a pretty straightforward case of discrimination because the decision was based on sex and the thought that the female employee may get pregnant. The hiring manager also made a decision based on marital status, so there are multiple types of discrimination here.

Make Decisions Based on Performance, Experience & Skills

While the example above may seem to be so obviously discrimination, such a scenario is still a reality in the workplace. In my own HR career, I have heard managers trying to make a decision using similar criteria. In these situations, I worked with managers to further analyze candidates’ skills and work experience in order to make a decision based on criteria relevant to the job and not on a protected class.

Make a conscious effort to review work performance, experience, skills education and other job-related factors in order to make any kind of employment decision. When rejecting a candidate, you should be able to come up with reasons not related to a protected class. A good job description is an excellent tool in ensuring that your hiring decisions are not discriminatory. Use the minimum qualifications section as a way to measure whether a candidate is qualified for a job. If one of your requirements is expert level knowledge of Excel, and the candidate states that they do not know how to use Excel, this would be an acceptable reason to reject someone.

Sometimes in the hiring process, you have two equally qualified candidates. When it comes down to figuring out which candidate is your top choice, focus on skills and experience and how those things fit in with your company rather than looking at traits that may be protected.

Acknowledge Your Own Biases

None of us is without some kind of prejudice or bias. We are influenced by culture, where we grew up and our own identities. Sometimes that means we may favor people who are more like us, or we may hold certain views about a particular group of people. It is important to be up front with yourself, understand your own biases and acknowledge how they may affect hiring and employment decisions. This is especially important in the hiring process to ensure that we are picking the top candidate for the job based on qualifications and not on certain protected traits.

When making any major employment decision, review your reasons for taking action. Can you offer reasons for taking action that are job based? Ask yourself, “Would I treat other similarly situated employees this way?” If you have any doubt about answering yes, look at what is really motivating your decision. Being aware of what motivates our actions and making changes when bias creeps in can go a long way to avoiding discriminatory practices.