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Page updated Nov 2, 2015 11:58 AM

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What is Discrimination?

The information below describes unlawful discrimination, what isn't unlawful discrimination, and how to remedy the situation.

Unlawful discrimination occurs when a person is harassed or treated arbitrarily or differently because of their membership in a "protected class." A protected class is a group of people who share common characteristics and are protected from discrimination and harassment by federal, state, and/or local laws.Alexandria Code recognizes the following protected classes:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Gender (including sexual harassment)
  • Religion
  • Ancestry
  • National Origin
  • Marital Status
  • Familial Status (in cases of housing discrimination only)
  • Age
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Disability Status (actual, regarded as having, and/or record of having a disability)

For information specific to a particular federally-protected class, refer to the "Discrimination by Type: Facts and Guidance" pages located at For a list of other resources relating to discrimination, click here.

In the employment context, discrimination begins with an adverse employment action, which is something an employer does that hurts an employee (for example: terminating the employee or not selecting him or her for a promotion, harassing the employee, denying the employee's request for a reasonable accommodation, etc.). If you believe the adverse employment action happened to you because of your membership in a protected class or your past involvement in a discrimination complaint, it could be discrimination. If individuals of different backgrounds suffered the same or similar adverse actions, it may not constitute unlawful discrimination. You may, however be able to look to other agencies (or your employer's human resources department) to assist you in resolving the problem.

Discrimination is Not

  • Personality differences or conflicts
  • General treatment not based on the above bases
  • Responses to poor performance

Because discrimination is often very subtle and difficult to distinguish from forms of conduct not covered by anti-discrimination laws, you should contact a Human Rights Investigator if you suspect discrimination.

How is Discrimination Proven?

Complainants bear the burden of proving discrimination, and should familiarize themselves with the applicable law to get a better understanding of what this burden entails. Once you file a complaint, the Respondent will be asked to explain why it acted in the complained-of manner. Next, the Complainant must prove that the stated reasons are a "pretext," and that discrimination was the real reason for the Respondent's actions.

If you believe you are experiencing discrimination, there are things that you can do to help substantiate your claim. You can begin keeping written records noting the date, time, place, and important details of incidents relating to your charge. If you are applying for a promotion, or requesting accommodations, be sure to do so in writing, and keep copies of any responses. Keep record of both positive and negative feedback, including job performance evaluations, and respond to negative feedback in writing.

In the employment context, it is usually helpful if you make an attempt to resolve the issue internally by reporting it to your supervisor, or the company's equal opportunity, personnel, or human resources departments. Refer to your company's employee handbook to determine which company channel is most appropriate, and request a meeting to discuss the problem with the individuals involved. Set a date to revisit the situation to discuss remaining problems and assess progress. In the meantime, make an effort to improve the situation, seek feedback, and communicate effectively with the individuals involved. By proactively and directly addressing the potentially discriminatory behavior, you are giving your employer an opportunity to correct the situation; should you later decide to file a formal complaint, the employer will already be aware of the problem.


Retaliation is also prohibited by anti-discrimination laws. It is illegal for an employer, housing provider, or other entity covered by the Alexandria Code to take an adverse action against you for:

  • Filing a complaint;
  • Objecting to a discriminatory practice; or
  • Participating in an investigation

You should contact a Human Rights Investigator if you suspect retaliation.