EEOC: Workplace Discrimination Claims Hit Record High in 2011

The American workforce is getting more diverse, and that's a good thing. However, some employers have been slower than others to adapt to these changing demographics.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported a record-high number of workplace discrimination complaints last year. All told, the EEOC received almost 100,000 complaints in 2011.

The largest increase came from religious discrimination complaints, which were up 9.5 percent from 2010. Discrimination claims based on ancestry or country of origin rose by 5 percent. Although claims of race and sex bias still made up the biggest share of discrimination complaints, the total number of these complaints actually fell slightly between 2010 and 2011.

Experts say that the increase in complaints based on religious or national origin discrimination can be traced to an influx of new minority groups. For example, although the EEOC did not release data specifying which ethnic or religious groups are responsible for the greatest share of complaints, some discrimination attorneys have speculated that the uptick may be related to an increased number of workers from India, Pakistan and other countries whose religious and cultural traditions may be new to some employers.

Given this increase, it is important for workers employers understand what religious and national origin discrimination are.

What is Religious Discrimination?

Religious discrimination occurs whenever an employer treats an employee or job applicant differently because of his or her religion. The rule applies not only to adherents of major organized religions (e.g. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, etc.), but also to anyone with a sincerely held religious, ethical or moral belief.

The law prohibits employers from making employment decisions based on an employee or applicant's religion. Harassment or offensive comments about an employee's religion are also prohibited, regardless of whether they come from supervisors, coworkers or customers.

In addition, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for an employee's religious practices. This includes accommodating religious dress, hairstyles and holiday observances, when doing so would not present an undue hardship for the business. Employers are also prohibited from "segregating" certain employees because of an actual or perceived customer preference.

What is National Origin Discrimination?

National origin discrimination occurs whenever an employer treats an employee or job applicant differently because of his or her nation of origin, accent or ethnicity. National origin discrimination can also occur based on an employee's perceived ethnicity, even if he or she is not actually a member of that group.

Just as with religious discrimination, employers are prohibited from making business decisions or engaging in or allowing harassment based on a person's national origin or ethnic ancestry.

National origin discrimination is often closely tied to a worker's decision to speak a particular language at work. Employers may not require workers to be fluent in English unless English fluency is necessary part of the job. Similarly, employers cannot impose English-only workplace rules unless they are necessary for the safe and efficient operation of the business. Employers are not allowed to make any employment decisions based on a worker's foreign accident, unless the accent seriously impacts the employee's ability to do his or her job.

Workplace Discrimination Claims

Employees who believe they have been the victim of workplace discrimination can file a complaint with the EEOC. In addition, they may be able to file a lawsuit and seek monetary damages from their employer. If discrimination is happening in your workplace, it is important to talk to an employment law attorney who can help you understand and protect your rights.