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Employment Discrimination and Harassment Glossary

The realm of employment discrimination and harassment has its own language and jargon. Small business owners can use help navigating the terms used in workplace discrimination. This FindLaw glossary explains common terms and phrases in discrimination and harassment claims.

ADA: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law protects those with disabilities from discrimination. It covers employment, education, and access to public accommodations. The ADA defines "disability" and creates reasonable accommodations and healthcare policies.

ADEA: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). This federal law bans age discrimination for workers over 40. The ADEA only affects employers with more than 20 employees.

At-will: "At-will" employment allows employers and employees to end a working relationship. Anti-discrimination laws cover at-will employees.

BFOQ: Short for the phrase "bona fide occupational qualification." A qualification that discriminates for a legitimate business need. The most common examples are age (such as mandatory retirement age for pilots) and religion. A business must have a clear policy for such a qualification.

Complainant: The person bringing a claim of discrimination or harassment. If the matter goes to a court of law, the complainant may be referred to as the plaintiff or the petitioner.

Constructive termination: Sometimes known as "constructive dismissal." This situation may follow a harassment claim. The worker voluntarily resigns because working conditions have become intolerable. The employer avoids a retaliation claim because the worker was not fired. Related to wrongful termination.

Department of Labor: The U.S. Department of Labor sets minimum wage and hour laws and oversees employee benefits. States have their own labor departments that oversee workplace harassment reports.

Disability: The ADA defines a disability as any of the following:

  • A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
  • A person who has a history or record of such an impairment
  • A person perceived by others as having such an impairment

A disability can be mental, emotional, physical, or psychological.

Disparate impact/disparate intent: Disparate impact is a company policy or practice with unintentional discriminatory effects. A job description requiring workers to lift 100 pounds unassisted is an example of a disparate impact policy. Disparate intent is an intentional policy designed to discriminate. A job description limiting a position to "men only" is an example. Discrimination laws distinguish between unintentional and deliberate discrimination in these cases.

EEOC: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This federal agency investigates claims of workplace discrimination or harassment. A victim of workplace discrimination or harassment must file a claim with the EEOC before initiating a private lawsuit.

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA): The FLSA sets minimum wage and hour laws for federal workers. Most states have similar standards. The FLSA also defines when the workday begins and ends, who receives overtime pay, and other basic employment law ground rules. State laws use the FLSA as a baseline for their own employment definitions.

FMLA: The Family and Medical Leave Act applies to employers with more than 50 employees. The FMLA allows workers to take unpaid leave for medical reasons. It also prevents employers from discriminating against workers who take this unpaid leave.

Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA): The first proactive law against genetic discrimination. Signed in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush. GINA prevents insurance providers from collecting genetic information. It also prevents discrimination against employees based on possible expression of hereditary illnesses.

Harassment: The EEOC defines harassment as: "any unwelcome conduct" based on any of the following:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity
  • Pregnancy
  • National origin
  • Age over 40
  • Disability
  • Genetic information

Harassment is unlawful when it is a condition of employment (i.e., "if you don't like it, quit") or the conduct creates a hostile work environment.

Harassing behavior continues after a request to stop. A single offensive comment is not considered harassment.

Hostile work environment: The basis for a harassment claim. A "hostile work environment" exists when the atmosphere is so toxic it creates an intimidating and offensive workplace.

HR department: The human resources department sets your harassment policy and provides it to your employees. Your HR department should have an employee handbook with all policies and procedures relating to harassment and discrimination.

Major life activity: Any impairment that substantially limits one or more of any daily life function, including but not limited to:

  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Eating
  • Sleeping
  • Walking
  • Standing
  • Speaking
  • Concentrating
  • Communicating

Major life impairments get assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Quid pro quo: A Latin phrase meaning "something for something." Quid pro quo is a type of sexual harassment in which the harasser asks for a sexual favor in return for providing an employment benefit.

Reasonable accommodation: When an employee has a disability, they can request a reasonable accommodation. The accommodation depends on the nature of the disability and the job requirements. For instance, an employee using a wheelchair may need a ramp installed to enter through the front door. Reasonable accommodations cannot cause the employer undue hardship.

Retaliation: When a business punishes an employee for making discrimination or harassment complaints. Retaliation can range from terminating the employee to creating a hostile work environment.

Sexual harassment: harassment or hostile work environment with a sexual component. Sexual harassment can include:

  • Overt conduct (physical contact, verbal abuse)
  • Indirect conduct (such as not providing equal pay for all employees)

Same-sex harassment: The type of sexual harassment that occurs when a man sexually harasses a man or a woman sexually harasses a woman.

Title VII: Short for Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, color, national origin, religion, and sex.

Undue hardship: The ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. If small businesses can show a request would put an unreasonable burden on the company, they may not need to make the accommodation.

Wrongful termination: Termination in violation of contract terms or retaliation for making a harassment claim or filing a whistleblower complaint are all wrongful terminations.

Get Legal Help Now

Businesses facing discrimination and harassment claims need legal help from an attorney who knows their state and local laws. Contact an employment attorney to review your case today.

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