What Are Protected Classes in Employment?



According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "to 'discriminate' against someone means to treat that person differently, or less favorably, for some reason." If the discrimination is linked to workplace-related situations, then it is considered employment discrimination, which is illegal.

The EEOC is the primary government agency that is responsible for enforcing and monitoring federal employment discrimination laws. These laws are in place to protect job applicants, employees and former employees alike from employment discrimination by placing them in certain groups that are known as protected classes.

Here are some details that, by law, employers cannot discriminate against you on the basis of:

  • Race.
  • Religion.
  • Sex.
  • Nationality.
  • Age.
  • Disability.
  • Genetic information.


Race discrimination involves treating applicants or employees unfavorably based on their race or personal characteristics associated with their race, including skin color, hair texture and facial features. Race discrimination also refers to treating someone unfavorably or unfairly because they are associated with someone of a certain race — discrimination by association.


Religious discrimination happens when an employer treats an applicant or employee unfavorably as a direct result of their religious beliefs. Discrimination laws cover people who are part of traditional, organized religions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, as well as individuals who hold ethical, moral or religious beliefs.


Sex-based discrimination refers to situations in which an employer mistreats an applicant or employee due to his or her sex, including gender identity, sexual orientation and pregnancy matters.


Discriminating against someone on the grounds of their nationality means you are treating them unfavorably simply because of where they come from, whether it be a certain country or a specific part of the world. For example, it is illegal to treat an applicant or employee unfavorably just because they have a certain accent, they are rooted in a particular ethnicity or they come from a certain ethnic background.


Age discrimination is when an employer treats an applicant or employee less favorably because of their age. According to federal law, age discrimination against individuals who are 40 years old or older is prohibited.


Disability discrimination happens when an employer treats a qualified applicant or employee unfavorably because of their disability. However, it is important to note that people with disabilities who want to make sure they are covered under the law must have been declared as having a disability according to the legal definition of disability.

Genetic information

Genetic information discrimination involves treating an applicant or employee unfavorably because of information stemming from their genetic tests, family members' genetic tests or family medical history.


  • All federal employment discrimination laws, except for age discrimination, apply to employers with at least 15 or more employees.
  • The federal age-based discrimination law applies to employers with 20 or more employees.
  • It is not legal to retaliate against people who are part of a protected class, particularly if they file a discrimination charge or complaint. You are also not allowed to discriminate against someone who has opposed discriminatory practices or participated in a past discrimination lawsuit or investigation.
  • Federal discrimination laws do not permit discrimination at all within any area of employment, including in the context of hiring, paying, extending benefits, assigning jobs, training, promoting, laying off workers and firing employees.

Both state and local laws could include additional groups of people that they categorize as protected classes. For instance, New York's protected classes include people of military status, those with prior arrest or conviction records, and individuals with certain marital statuses. As always, look at the precise details of the laws in your area and make sure you operate accordingly.