powered by probono.net

To leave this site now, use the X button.
If you are in danger, please use a safer computer.
In an emergency, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (TTY 1-800-787-3224). Computer use can be monitored and is impossible to completely clear.

Text size: A A A

WashingtonLawHelp.orgWashington LawHelp

Job Discrimination

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded

Most employment in Washington State is "at will." Your employer usually can fire you at will for any reason, or for no reason. There are exceptions to this rule. This publication explains different types of job discrimination and gives examples of each.



Most employment in Washington State is "at will."  Your employer usually can fire you at will for any reason, or no reason. There are some exceptions to this.

*Some words and expressions you should know: "national origin" means the country you were born in or lived most of your life in before coming to the U.S. To "exclude" means to leave out. "Retaliation" means to get back at someone.

Your employer may not discriminate against you based on race, color, national origin, disability, religion, sex, marital status, age and (in some cities) sexual orientation. A job rule or policy that has the effect of disproportionately excluding one of these groups is illegal if it is not necessary to the job. Washington's law against discrimination protects both independent contractors and employees.

If you think your employer fired you due to discrimination, keep a written log of all your efforts to find another job. You will need this if you want to sue your employer for lost wages.

Discrimination laws protect you even if your employer has a mistaken belief, and acts against you because of that belief. Example:  Greg's employer fires him because his employer thinks he filed a complaint about health and safety. The law protects Greg, even if he did not actually file the complaint.

It is rare for an employer to come out and say that s/he fired you because of, for example, your race or age. Often employers give another reason, related to the quality of your work or to you breaking a rule. If discrimination or retaliation was a major factor in why the employer acted against you, you may win even though the employer had other reasons for acting against you.

Age Discrimination: Age discrimination laws protect workers 40 years or older, and in more than hiring and firing. The employer also cannot:

  • refuse to promote or train you because of your age

  • let you go or lower your pay or benefits because of your age

Race and National Origin Discrimination: Your employer cannot deny you job opportunities because of your race, color, national origin, birthplace, ancestry, culture, or language background. Your employer also cannot discriminate against you for associating with a particular race or ethnic group.

Example: Hannah, who is white, is married to a man from Saudi Arabia. She works at an auto parts store. Her employer tells her that her husband should not come into the store to pick her up because his customers feel uncomfortable around Arabs. This is discrimination.

Job rules that have the effect of disproportionately excluding minorities or persons of a particular national origin may be against the law.

Example:  a rule that workers only speak English on the job or a rule excluding people who speak English with an accent may be against the law, if the rule is not necessary to the particular job.

Sex Discrimination and Sexual Harassment: An employer cannot refuse to hire women, unless there is some reason only men can do the job. An employer can have a rule about height, weight or strength if needed for the job.

Example: Sarah wants to be the first female police officer in her town. The police have a rule that an officer must be five foot eight inches tall. She is only five foot four. This is discrimination if the height rule is not needed for the job.

Pregnancy discrimination is a type of sex discrimination. The employer cannot discriminate against a woman because of pregnancy, childbirth or any related condition, as long as she can perform the job's essential functions.

Example: Grace works as a grocery store clerk. When she is six months pregnant, her employer says she must go on leave until after the baby is born. Grace feels fine. Her doctor says she can keep on working. Her employer says no. This is discrimination.

Sexual harassment is a kind of sex discrimination. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature can be unlawful harassment. It is unlawful sexual harassment if giving in to or rejecting the conduct affects your job, unreasonably interferes with your job performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

The harasser can be a man or a woman. The victim can be either a man or a woman. Example:  Joe's female supervisor makes unwelcome sexual advances towards him. She says that if he will go out with her, she will make sure he goes far in the company. Joe is a victim of sexual harassment.

The harasser can be a supervisor, a co-worker or a non-employee (examples: a client or customer). You should report harassment to appropriate company officials and follow any company procedures. Otherwise, things may not get resolved and the company may not be held liable for the harassment.  If you can, put your report in writing. Keep a copy to prove you put the company on notice of the harassment. It will also protect you in case the employer retaliates against you for complaining.

Example:  Susan's co-workers at the auto parts store are constantly showing her pictures of naked women and making suggestions of a sexual nature to her. Susan's boss, Joe, sees that Susan finds this conduct offensive. He does nothing to stop it. Susan is a victim of sexual harassment.

Generally, to violate the law, offensive remarks must be common in the work environment, not just occasional.. The worse the conduct is, the fewer times it needs to happen to be a hostile working environment.

Religious Discrimination: Your employer cannot discriminate against you in hiring, firing or other terms or conditions of employment because of your religion. The employer must accommodate your religious practices, unless it would be an undue hardship for the employer to do so.

Example: Sarah's religion requires that she wear a scarf covering her hair at all times. Her employer repeatedly tells her to "take that thing off."  He also tells her religious beliefs have "no place at work." This is discrimination.

Disability Discrimination:  Employers may not discriminate against qualified people with disabilities. They may not discriminate in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, pay, training and other terms, conditions and privileges of employment.

Under state law, you are disabled if

  • you have an abnormal condition AND

  • the condition has a substantially limiting effect on your ability to do your job

(The Federal definition of disability is stricter.)  A disability can be physical or mental. The law also protects people

  • with a history of disability (even though they are recovered now)

  • who are not disabled but their employer believes they are

  • with temporary disabilities

A qualified person is one who can do the essential functions of the job. If you can do the job with reasonable accommodation, you are qualified. The employer must provide accommodation. Accommodation can mean many things, among them:

  • modifying work schedules

  • reassignment

  • buying equipment

  • having interpreters

  • making facilities accessible

  • giving you a leave of absence for recovery

Your employer must provide accommodation unless it would be an undue hardship on them.

Example:Lyla is a bookkeeper. She suffers from depression from an experience of domestic violence that kept her from working in the past. She needs to take a long lunch once a week to meet with her therapist. She still finishes her workload. She is able to work as long as she takes her medication. The employer must accommodate Lyla unless the modified schedule is an undue hardship on the employer.

The Washington Human Rights Commission (HRC) enforces the state law. You can sue under the state law without first going through the HRC. 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces the federal law (Americans with Disabilities Act - the ADA). Private lawyers can also sue to enforce these laws. To sue under the ADA, you must first go through the EEOC.

Seattle, Tacoma and King County have human rights offices that enforce their own ordinances against discrimination. Unions and mediators can also help if your employer has discriminated against you.

*Written statement of reasons the employer fired you:  Under state law, you have a right to a signed, written statement of the reasons they fired you. Your employer must give it to you within ten working days of getting your written request.


This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities.  It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice. 
This information is correct as of March 2015.

© 2015 Northwest Justice Project — 1-888-201-1014
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and to individuals for non-commercial purposes only.)

Last Review and Update: Mar 17, 2015