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California Race and National Origin Discrimination and Harassment

Two key laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race and national origin in California. Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to all employers that have at least 15 employees. California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) applies to all California employers (and some out-of-state employers with employees who work in California) that have at least 5 employees. In addition, FEHA protects all California employees from unlawful workplace harassment, regardless of the size of the employer.

Current or former employees, as well as job applicants, who believe they were the victim of unlawful discrimination because of race or national origin can get legal advice from an employment discrimination lawyer at KKG Law. Our office serves current and former employees in Oakland, San Jose, Fairfield, and all other Bay Area communities.

Race Discrimination

Title VII and FEHA both protect employees and job applicants from discrimination on the basis of race or color. All employees and job applicants are deemed to be members of a “protected class” because of their race. Laws prohibiting race discrimination protect members of all races.

Race discrimination includes discrimination based on a perception that the employee belongs to a particular race, whether or not that perception is accurate. For example, it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee because the employer links the employee’s hair texture, skin color, or facial features to members of a particular race.

Race discrimination laws also protect employees who associate with members of other races. For example, it is unlawful to fire a white employee because of the employee’s friendship with a person of a different race.

Discrimination on the basis of “color” overlaps with race discrimination, but the prohibition against color discrimination provides additional protections. Color refers to skin pigmentation or complexion. For example, when an employer discriminates against a member of the employer’s own race because the employee has darker (or lighter) skin than the employer, the employer has discriminated on the basis of race.

National Origin Discrimination

Title VII and FEHA both protect against discrimination on the basis of national origin. While FEHA also includes the term “ancestry,” both laws provide similar protections, including a prohibition against discrimination because of an employee’s:

  • Birth outside of the United States
  • Birth of parents, grandparents, or other ancestors outside of the United States
  • Ethnicity
  • Native language
  • Accent
  • Culture and customs associated with a particular nationality or ethnicity
  • Physical characteristics that the employer associates with a particular nationality or ethnicity
  • Education or training outside the United States
  • Marriage to or association with people of other nationalities or ethnicities

Discrimination because of an employer’s perception of an employee’s national origin is also unlawful, even if the perception is inaccurate.

Language and Accent Discrimination

“English-only” rules are generally unlawful unless they are tailored to a specific business necessity. For example, employees who are in customer-service positions can be expected to speak English with reasonable fluency if language skills are a reasonable condition for the job.

Speaking without an accent is not generally regarded as a reasonable job requirement, provided that the employee’s accent does not interfere with the employee’s job performance. Fear that customers might not want to deal with an employee who has an accent is not a sufficient reason to discriminate on the basis of an accent.

Immigration Status Discrimination

Employers are prohibited from discriminating against individuals because they are not U.S. citizens, provided that they are authorized to work in the United States. A green card holder is therefore entitled to protection from discrimination on the basis of national origin when applying for jobs and after being hired as an employee.

Employers may not lawfully hire employees unless they are citizens or lawful permanent residents (green card holders). However, when an employer hires an employee who cannot work lawfully in the United States, the employer may not discriminate against that employee in the terms and conditions of employment. That means the employer cannot pay an undocumented immigrant less than a citizen employee because of the immigrant’s lack of citizenship. Threatening to contact immigration authorities if an employee does not accept discriminatory treatment is also a prohibited act of discrimination.

Examples of Employment Discrimination

Employment discrimination means treating one employee less favorably than another employee because of membership in a protected class, including race, color, national origin, or ancestry. “Less favorable treatment” usually, but not always, refers to employment decisions that adversely affect pay, position, employment status, or other terms and conditions of employment.

Examples of employment discrimination include basing any of the following decisions on race or national origin:

  • Hiring
  • Termination
  • Layoff
  • Wages and other compensation, including bonuses
  • Benefits
  • Unpaid suspensions

Depending on the circumstances, employment discrimination might also include basing any of the following decisions on race or national origin:

  • Transfers
  • Job duties/work assignments
  • Discipline
  • Training
  • Performance evaluations

If you are unsure whether an adverse action taken against you might be unlawful, ask for advice from a California employment discrimination lawyer at KKG Law.

Harassment

Workplace harassment is a form of employment discrimination if it is based on race, color, national origin, or ancestry. Examples of workplace harassment include:

  • Subjecting employees to racial slurs
  • Subjecting employees to offensive ethnic jokes
  • Taunting or ridiculing employees because of their ethnicity
  • Mocking an accent
  • Making rude or offensive comments about an employee’s country of origin
  • Suggesting that employees of a particular race or national origin are not qualified to do the job

As a general rule, employers are not held accountable for occasional or “stray” remarks made by employees. Workplace harassment violates the law when it is so severe or pervasive that it creates a hostile work environment. A work environment is hostile when harassment becomes oppressive or intimidating and impairs an employee’s ability to work.

In some cases, harassment becomes so intolerable that an employee feels forced to quit. If a reasonable employee would make that same decision under the same circumstances, the employee’s decision to quit is called a “constructive discharge” and is treated as if it were a discriminatory termination by the employer.

Whether a work environment is hostile, and what to do if has become hostile, are not easy questions to answer. An employment discrimination lawyer at KKG Law can give employees the advice they need.

Retaliation

Federal and California law prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who complain, or file legal claims, about employment discrimination or harassment. Conduct that is defined as retaliatory is broader than the discriminatory acts discussed above. Our retaliation page explains retaliation and its remedies in more detail.

Helping Victims of Employment Discrimination and Harassment

Employees who have experienced employment discrimination or harassment may be entitled to:

  • Back pay
  • Compensation for emotional distress
  • Reinstatement to a position or front pay
  • Court orders prohibiting future harassment or discrimination
  • Court orders requiring employers to eliminate the effects of discrimination (e.g., reversing a demotion or transfer)
  • Punitive damages

An employment lawyer at KKG Law can help victims of race or national origin discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. We represent current and former employees in Oakland, San Jose, Fairfield, and all other Bay Area communities. Contact us at 707-898-8125.