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Inclusive Workplaces

When our educators are safe, welcome, and included, they can focus on educating our students. Here's what you need to know to about equity and the law at work.
Educators at conference table NEA
Educators at the 2019 ESP Pre-Conference tackle equity and inclusion in schools and the community

We are committed to ensuring equity and inclusion in the workplace for all our members by providing the tools to recognize and respond to discrimination. For when our educators can thrive, our students can, too. As Education Minnesota member–and 2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year–Kelly D. Holstine said:

Students are more successful when they can see themselves in both their schools and in their curriculum; and all students benefit when they can learn from a variety of experiences and perspectives.

Below we define illegal discrimination under federal, provide key facts about discrimination against people of different races, backgrounds, genders, sexual orientation, and abilities, and guidance on how to respond to discrimination in the workplace–including how your union can support you. You can also learn how to build diverse workplaces here.

What is discrimination?

Discriminatory acts covered under the Civil Rights Act may include: 

  • Termination 
  • Not being selected for a promotion
  • Harassment (by your employer or other employees)
  • Sexual harassment, including sexual assault, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
  • Retaliation for complaining about discrimination or harassment.
  • Other adverse employment actions

Not all discrimination is overt. Innocent banter, jokes, and stereotypes are all discriminatory practices. It does not matter if the person did not intend to be offensive. It does not matter if “everyone laughed.” It does not matter if the comments weren’t directed to the person who was offended. However, most isolated comments or incidents will not be enough to support a discrimination claim based on harassment. The harassment must be so severe or pervasive that it creates a hostile work environment.

Racial Equity

Federal law prohibits discrimination based race and color, and based country of origin.

Discrimination Based on Race or Color

Discrimination based on race or color is prohibited by federal law. It’s important to know race discrimination and discrimination based on color are considered two different types of discrimination. Race discrimination is less favorable treatment based on being a member of or identifying as a particular race. Discrimination based on color is less favorable treatment based on social meanings attached to skin color. 

Both race and color discrimination may involve treating someone unfavorably because the person is married to or associated with a person of a certain race or color, or because of a person’s connection with an organization or group that is race-based or generally associated with people of a certain color.

Discrimination Based on Country of Origin

National origin discrimination is also prohibited by federal law. This includes less favorable treatment because of being from a particular country or a part of the world, because of ethnicity or accent, or for appearing to be from a certain ethnic background even if you are not. 

While citizenship requirements are allowed, such requirements can violate the law if they are used to discriminate against people of certain national origins. And separate laws prevent discrimination based on citizenship status as long as the person in question is legally authorized to work in the United States.

Sexual Orientation Equity

Harassment because of not conforming to gender role expectations is a discriminatory practice. On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that the federal Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of sexual orientation, transgender status, and gender identity or expression. Prior to the ruling, 28 states did not have laws protecting LGBTQ+ workers.

An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law. – U.S. Supreme Court

Discrimination based on sexual orientation remains a pervasive problem in many workplaces:

  • 22% of LGBTQ+ Americans report not being paid equally or promoted at the same rate as straight workers.
  • 53% report hearing gay or lesbian jokes at work, 37% bisexual jokes, and 41% transgender jokes.   
  • 10% of LGBTQ+ workers have left a job because they did not feel accepted at their job.

Sexual orientation discrimination may sometimes involve overlapping characteristics, such as harassment or discrimination based on one’s identity as a Black transwoman, even where other non-Black transwomen or Black cisgender women are not subjected to the same discriminatory treatment


    Gender Equity

    Gender discrimination and harassment is a particular problem for women in education — especially women of color — who face challenges on multiple fronts. 

    • 1 in 4 female educators report being sexually harassed or assaulted on the job. 
    • Women in school leadership roles earn as much as $20,000-$30,000 less than their male counterparts
    • New mothers are often rushed back to work, face a lack of breastfeeding accommodations, and are sometimes forced to leave the profession for making the decision to start a family.

    Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. Discriminatory acts may include: 

    • Termination 
    • Not being selected for a promotion
    • Harassment (by your employer or other employees)
    • Sexual harassment, including sexual assault, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
    • Retaliation for complaining about discrimination or harassment.
    • Other adverse employment actions

    Equity for People with Differing Abilities

    Disability discrimination occurs when an applicant or employee is treated less favorably because of a disability. A person may be disabled if he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, or learning). A person is also protected from disability discrimination if they have a record of having such a condition or if they are viewed as having that condition by others.

    Accommodating Disabilities at Work

    Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee or job applicant with a disability. This does not mean the exact accommodation the employee or job applicant wants. If more than one accommodation works, the employer may choose which one to provide. A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment (or in the way things are usually done) to help a person with a disability apply for a job, perform the duties of a job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment. An employer does not have to provide an accommodation if doing so would cause undue hardship. Undue hardship means that the accommodation would be too difficult or too expensive to provide, in light of the employer’s size, financial resources, or the type of its operation. An employer may not refuse to provide an accommodation just because it involves some cost.

    Asking About Disability

    There are strict limits on when an employer may ask job applicants medical questions, to take a medical exam, or to identify a disability. For example, an employer may not ask job applicants to answer medical questions or to take a medical exam before extending a job offer. Employers are also not allowed to ask job applicants if they have a disability (or to ask about the nature of an obvious disability). An employer may ask job applicants whether they can perform the job and how they would perform the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. Once a person is hired and started work, an employer generally can only ask medical questions or require a medical exam if the employer needs medical documentation to support an employee’s request for an accommodation or if the employer believes that an employee is not able to perform a job successfully or safely because of a medical condition.

    How to Respond to Discrimination in the Workplace

    Employees should take action to protect their rights in the workplace. It may help curb offending behavior, and is important should you need to take more significant legal action. You should: 

    • Talk to the offender: You are not obligated to take this step, but it may be the best way to get the behavior to stop. And should you need to pursue legal action, proving the behavior was unwanted is important. 
    • Document the behavior: Keep records of what is happening. Include the time, place, witnesses, and circumstances of each incident. Make sure to do the same for any meetings with management or human resources personnel as well. 
    • Look at your collective bargaining agreement: See what information it provides.
    • Report: Find out the proper procedures for reporting discrimination or harassment, and follow that process. 
    • Contact your local union: We can help you map out a course of action and take the appropriate steps to find resolution for the discrimination or harassment. 

    What to do if you think you need to take legal action

    Legal counsel may be able to provide advice and guidance on how to best handle the acts of discrimination against you. Members should reach out to their state association when seeking counsel. They may offer legal services through the Unified Legal Services Program. Many lawyers specialize in workplace discrimination, and will be able to evaluate the employees case based on the on the employee’s specific circumstances, and keep you abreast of deadlines.

    Victims of discrimination and/or harassment must file a charge with either the EEOC or with a state or local human rights agency before bringing a lawsuit. And there are set timelines in which this process must take place. Information on these processes is available in the downloads section below. 

    Retaliation for asserting your rights

    You cannot be retaliated against for exercising your rights to a discrimination-free workplace. Retaliatory acts include any negative job action — demotion, discipline, firing, salary reduction, or job or shift reassignment. 

    This includes: 

    • Inquiring about legal rights under employment law or employer policy 
    • Reporting or complaining about discrimination or harassment
    • Assisting in a complaint investigation
    Member Edwin Manarrez
    There are a lot of like-minded people who work hard to improve public schools for their students, and I find the more involved I am with my union, the more it welcomes me—and I appreciate that. ⁣
    Quote by: Edwin Moñarrez, Special Education Teacher, Illinois Education Association
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