We hear a lot about “protected groups,” but what are they?   Quite simply, a protected group is a set of people qualified for special protection by a law, policy, or similar authority; it is frequently used in connection with hiring and employment.  Some examples would be racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly (or any particular age group for that matter) ,and groups defined by religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disabilities, etc.  Some of the most common protected groups are:


But are other groups/classes protected? Yes, they are; if not by federal statute or policy then by state or local laws or policies.


The Immigration Reform & Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 addresses discrimination based on U.S. citizenship.  Under IRCA, you cannot discriminate against an applicant or employee because (s)he is not a U.S. citizen.


The EEOC does not specifically enforce protections that prohibit an employer from making employment decisions based on sexual orientation. However, other federal agencies do, and many states and municipalities prohibit employers from considering an applicant’s or employee’s sexual orientation.


The Americans with Disabilities Act covers current, prior, and perceived disabilities. However, the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act of 2008 stipulates that an employer cannot consider or even ask about a person’s genetic information when making employment decisions.  In other words, if a person may be prone to a certain illness, or even if it becomes obvious that the employee will develop a certain illness, (s)he cannot be discriminated against.


Questions about marital status and the number/ages of children may violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if used to deny or limit employment opportunities.  Generally, employers should not ask any job-related questions involving marital status, names of children or spouses, or number/ages of children during hiring process


According to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), an employer cannot discriminate against an individual because (s)he is a union member or because it is believed that (s)he has pro-union sympathies.

It is important to remember that a single claim of discrimination may be based on more than one protected class status.  For example, discrimination against a pregnant woman might be based on gender, marital status or both.

Many state or local laws and policies, as well as federal rulings, also provide protection against harassment and discrimination to certain protected groups.  These can include

  • Bankruptcy status
  • Veteran status
  • Expunged juvenile records
  • Political affiliation
  • Physical appearance
  • Gender identity*
  • The off-duty use of lawful products (for example, cigarette smoking).

*NOTE:  In April, 2012, the EEOC issued an opinion that says discrimination against transgender workers amounts to sex discrimination that violates federal law.

Bottom line is that you need to always ask yourself if the reason not to hire truly relates to a person’s  ability to perform the job functions. If the answer is “no,” then don’t take the fact into consideration, even if there are no laws to protect it.

Stay away from the personal and focus only on the professional. If a job requires travel, you can ask all applicants whether they can travel as required by the job. You can’t ask applicants whether they have family (spouse, in-laws, parents, etc.) who can help with child care arrangements.

Snelling can help.  We have over 60 years of experience in placing and managing the ever-changing U.S. workforce.  Our staffing and direct hire placement professionals are knowledgeable and well-versed in the many federal, state and local laws placed around hiring and managing protected groups.  We want to partner with you to help you, not only, understand and comply with federal law, but comply with the state and local laws that are generally enforced differently and may prohibit discrimination for categories other than the ones discussed here.

So visit us today at www.snelling.com to find your local Snelling office, so we can partner with you for all your human capital management needs.

NOTE:  A full-color, downloadable PDF is available.