You may think it is easy to spot discrimination in the workplace. If your boss comes up to you and tells you that they're firing you because the company no longer wants to employ African-Americans or women or people over the age of 50, this is a clear violation of your rights.
However, companies typically do not stray that far into blatant discrimination. Doing that used to be legal, as astounding as that sounds to modern readers, which is why laws eventually got passed to prevent this. But employers know that's illegal now, so they avoid such obvious violations.
That's where pretextual employment discrimination enters the picture.
What is it?
Generally speaking, pretextual employment discrimination is just the process of picking a legal basis for discrimination that can then hide the fact that the firings are really based on illegal discrimination.
It is similar to what was done with voter discrimination before modern voting laws. One regulation was that voters needed to achieve a certain amount of education first. On the outside, this looked both legal and useful. The problem, of course, was that the rule was not designed to make sure educated voters entered the booth. Lawmakers designed it because African Americans faced many educational barriers compared to their white peers.
In short, this was just racial discrimination, wrapped up in the guise of education.
One modern example is a dress code. Now, dress codes often are legal if they really focus on appearance and they treat all employees the same. However, they may be illegal if they focus on one religion, race, gender or some other protected class.
For instance, if a company tells all employees to wear the same uniform, with no exceptions, that's probably legal. However, if the company tells employees they can wear whatever they want, but they just can't wear anything on their heads, that may be illegal. The rule may have been designed to target members of the Islamic faith or those of other religions with important dress codes of their own.
You also need to watch out for regulations that seem unnecessary for the job.
For instance, a tech company may require that all employees prove their proficiency with the newest technology on the market. They need to use it to do their jobs. If a bar requires all waiters and waitresses to prove their proficiency on the newest smartphone, though, that could raise red flags. Could it be just a form of age discrimination to ensure that the waitstaff is young?
You can see how important it is to know your rights. Seemingly harmless workplace rules may actually violate those rights and cost you your job.