What Are Protected Classes?

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December 08, 2021
Author: Lorman Education

In today's workplace it is important for employers and employees alike to observe federal regulations designed to promote equality and fair treatment. An important aspect of these federally-mandated guidelines are the protected classes associated with anti-discrimination laws. 

This article will discuss what the federally protected classes are, and how they should inform decision making within the business world. In addition, we will touch on some practical examples of how employers can apply anti-discrimination laws within the workplace.

What are the Federally Protected Classes?

According to federal law, especially since the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, there are 10 classes or categories of people that are legally protected from discrimination. These classes consist of the following groupings:

  • Race
  • Age
  • Color
  • Religion/faith
  • Sex
  • National origin or ancestry
  • Disability
  • Genetic information
  • Citizenship
  • Veteran status

Apart from federally protected classes, state laws may define additional protected classes, such as:

  • Marital status
  • Arrest and court record

It should be noted that the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) groups discrimination types into 12 categories, which do not exactly correspond with the federally protected classes.

Protected Classes Within the Business Community

There are many practical considerations associated with protected classes that employers must take into account. For example:

  • While the judicial system will not step in to arbitrate every hiring decision, as Johnson v Weld County and similar cases clearly indicate, it is vital that equal opportunity employers base their hiring decisions solely on factors that directly correlate to anticipated job performance.
  • Managers should do their part to ensure that the workplace remains free of discrimination or harassment in general, and especially towards employees that fall under one or more of the federally protected classes. 
  • The federally protected classes should only be taken into consideration as employment factors when they directly relate to job performance.

Examples of Anti-Discrimination Policies in Action

Employers should be mindful of the federally protected classes, as well as their own anti-discrimination policies, in a wide range of circumstances. These could include the following scenarios:

  • If a job candidate has a foreign accent, the hiring manager must not take the accent into account for his selection criteria.
  • A hiring manager must not discriminate against any candidate with limited English proficiency. The only situation in which English speaking limitations would play a legitimate role in the ultimate hiring decision is a scenario in which English proficiency is required for the position (e.g., a position as an English teacher).
  • It is illegal for employers to discriminate with regards to compensation. For instance, a female employee should be paid the same as a male employee in an equivalent role, all other factors being equal.
  • Harassment, firing, or demotion of an employee due to the employee's inclusion in a federally protected class violates anti-discrimination laws, and can leave the company open to legal action.

Employers and HR managers should take proactive steps to implement anti-discrimination policies within the workplace. For instance, many companies provide anti-discrimination training for their employees. 

Moreover, HR managers should be diligent in documenting reported cases of discrimination or harassment, and following up as needed. It is also best practice to clearly document the reasons behind each hiring decision made.


In conclusion, federally protected classes make up an important component of anti-discrimination laws, both inside and outside of the workplace. It is important for business owners, executives, HR coordinators, and managers to become well-acquainted with these protected classes to ensure a healthy corporate culture, and a legally-compliant workplace.

If you'd like to further your education on such important topics as federally protected classes, reach out to us to explore our catalog of professional continuing education courses.





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