A discrimination complaint is filed when someone feels that s/he has been unfairly or unjustly treated as compared to someone else. Sometimes, the person believes that a process or criteria has been inefficiently or inconsistently applied to him or her as compared to another person.

There may be any number of reasons for the alleged differing treatment, yet only certain reasons are prohibited by law. The reason for alleged differing treatment constitutes the complaint’s “basis” or, in the case of multiple reasons, the “bases” of discrimination.

Why is the “basis” of a discrimination complaint important to the Equal Opportunity (EO) professional? It is one of the critical factors used in determining whether a violation of applicable civil rights laws has been alleged. While it is true that any form of discriminatory conduct or preferential treatment is offensive and unfair, not all conduct is illegal.

Federally-funded programs and activities

Prohibited bases of discrimination in federally-funded programs and activities are established by statute. For example, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides that race, color, and national origin are illegal bases of discrimination. Disability is another prohibited basis of discrimination pursuant to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008. The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 prohibits discrimination on the basis of age—any age.

While the foregoing statutes set forth prohibited bases of discrimination across the board in federally-funded programs and activities, there are certain statutes delineating additional prohibited bases of discrimination, which are applicable to specific types of programs and activities. For instance, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 (Title IX) prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex or gender in federally-funded educational programs and activities. And, one of the most expansive civil rights laws applies to certain workforce development programs and activities. Notably, Section 188 of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014 prohibits discrimination on the previously-mentioned bases of race, color, national origin, age, disability, and gender. And, it contains the following additional prohibited bases of discrimination: religion, political affiliation or belief, citizenship, and WIOA-participant status.

To illustrate the concept of “basis” and its importance, we’ll look at a couple of examples. First, let’s assume that Michelle wants to enroll in a GED program at a nearby public college, which receives WIOA-related funding from the U.S. Department of Labor as well as financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education. The admissions officer of the college does not permit Michelle to complete the enrollment form because Michelle has been pregnant five times in the past seven years. Michelle files a complaint. Here, Michelle has filed a complaint alleging gender-based discrimination; that is, Michelle alleges that she is subjected to discrimination (not allowed to enroll) because of her history of pregnancies and, since pregnancy is unique to women, this is an allegation of gender-based discrimination. Because the college operates its programs and activities using federal dollars, the delivery of these educational programs and activities is governed by Title IX, which prohibits gender-based discrimination. And, gender-based discrimination at this college also is prohibited under WIOA Section 188. So, Michelle’s complaint alleges illegal discrimination.

Now, let’s turn to Joe, who alleges that he is being denied on-the-job-training through a WIOA-funded American Job Network center because he is homeless. If we look at the prohibited “bases” of discrimination under WIOA Section 188, we see that “homelessness” is not listed. Undoubtedly, discrimination against a person because s/he is homeless is offensive and unfair, but the WIOA EO professional does not have authority to investigate Joe’s complaint under WIOA Section 188 because his complaint does not allege a “basis” of discrimination prohibited by those laws.

If you are an EO professional for your agency, organization, or company, you must know the civil rights laws that apply to your federally-funded programs and activities. Review these laws to determine the prohibited “bases” of discrimination in the delivery of your programs and activities. If you receive a discrimination complaint, you will need to ensure that the alleged basis of discrimination is prohibited by one or more civil rights laws governing your programs and activities before you consider accepting the complaint for investigation.

In the workplace

If you are an EEO/AA/HR professional in the workplace, you also will need to know the federal, state, and local civil rights laws applicable to workplace discrimination. As with laws governing federally-funded programs and activities, civil rights laws governing the workplace will delineate certain prohibited “bases” of discrimination. These workplace “bases” include age (40 years of age and over), disability, equal compensation, genetic information, national origin, sex (including pregnancy and sexual harassment), race, color, and religion.

As an example, 46-year-old Mario alleges he was transferred to a less desirable office location and, recently, he has been excluded from monthly management meetings as compared to a 28-year-old colleague who continues to attend the meetings and occupies a highly, sought-after office location in the company. Here, Mario has filed an age-based discrimination complaint, and you would have authority to investigate that complaint under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

On the other hand, Joan files a discrimination complaint alleging that her supervisor does not like her and gave her a poor performance review because she is vocal in her disagreement with the supervisor’s policies. This complaint does not allege any “basis” of discrimination prohibited by federal or state civil rights laws. Notably, “personality conflicts,” “policy differences,” or “disagreements” are not among the prohibited bases of discrimination in the workplace. As a result, you would not have authority to investigate Joan’s complaint.


As an EO professional, it will save you time to make a list of the prohibited “bases” of discrimination under the civil rights laws applicable to your federally-funded programs and activities. For the EEO/AA/HR professional, you’ll need to have a clear understanding of the civil rights laws applicable to your employment practices. This knowledge, in turn, will help you quickly assess whether a complaint alleges illegal discrimination. For complaints that allege discrimination on a prohibited basis, you must ensure all other jurisdictional requirements are met prior to accepting the complaint for investigation. For complaints that do not allege discrimination on a prohibited basis, you do not have jurisdiction to investigate the complaint under federal civil rights laws, but you may determine that issues raised in the complaint may be addressed informally (such as by taking steps to address customer service issues in the delivery of federally-funded programs and activities), or through the non-discrimination grievance process in place at your agency, organization, or company for workplace-related complaints.

About Seena Foster

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting, LLP in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of compliance and civil rights investigations to state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, and non-profit organizations. To that end, she offers on-demand webcasts, full-day and half-day in-person training sessions, assistance developing procedures, and mediation services addressing a variety of types of discrimination such as racial discrimination, sex discrimination, disability discrimination, age discrimination, and religious discrimination. The federal law on discrimination is complex and affects our workplaces as well as the delivery of our federally-funded programs and activities. Her book, “Civil Rights Investigations Under the Workforce Investment Act and Other Title VI Related Laws: From Intake to Final Determination,” has been described as an “eye-opening” reading experience and a “stand-alone” training resource. Ms. Foster’s resources and materials are designed to support the work of civil rights and discrimination professionals in the public and private sectors. To learn more about Ms. Foster, and the services she has to offer, go to www.titleviconsulting.com.