When Can (and Should) Federal Employees Sue for Discrimination?

January 19, 2023
The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford

As a federal employee, you are entitled to a workplace free from all forms of discrimination and harassment. While there is no excuse for discrimination or harassment in any workplace, when you work for the federal government (or apply for a federal job), the last thing you expect is to experience any form of discriminatory treatment in relation to your career.

Yet, discrimination in federal employment is a persistent concern.

While federal employees are entitled to protection from discrimination (and remedies for discrimination), the protections that apply to federal employees are different from those that apply to employees in the private sector in some circumstances. For example, while many private-sector employees can file disability discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the ADA does directly protect employees of federal offices, departments and agencies. Instead, federal employees must pursue their claims under the Rehabilitation Act. As a federal employee, you need to know which laws protect you (and when), and it is important to work with a lawyer who has specific experience handling discrimination claims against the federal government.

Types of Discrimination

Several federal laws protect U.S. government employees from discrimination in the workplace. This includes laws enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPD), Office of Special Counsel (OSC), and other federal entities. As a federal employee (or job applicant), you are entitled to protection against discrimination based on all of the following:

  • Age (40 or older)
  • Color
  • Disability
  • Gender Identity
  • Genetic Information
  • Marital Status
  • National Origin
  • Parental Status
  • Political Affiliation
  • Pregnancy
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Sexual Orientation

Federal law also prohibits discrimination based on an employee’s (or job applicant’s) participation in any “conduct which does not adversely affect the performance of the applicant or employee.” The prohibitions against discrimination in federal employment are broad, and while they do not apply in all scenarios, if you believe that you have experienced discrimination in relation to any of the protected characteristics listed above, you should consult with an experienced lawyer promptly.

Types of Discriminatory Employment Action

The prohibitions on discrimination in the federal sector apply to all aspects of employment—from job postings through termination (and even beyond in some circumstances). This means that as a federal employee (or job applicant), you may be entitled to financial compensation or other remedies if you have experienced discrimination in connection with any of the following:

Job Advertisements

Federal employers are prohibited from publishing job advertisements that are exclusionary or that favor individuals with certain protected characteristics. This includes obvious exclusions (i.e., advertising a job opening for females) as well as less-obvious favoring that is equally discriminatory in nature (i.e., encouraging recent college graduates to apply).


Federal employers must also be careful to avoid discriminatory outcomes through the recruiting process. For example, if a federal agency only recruits in certain geographic areas or at certain schools, this could have a discriminatory impact.

Pre-Employment Inquiries

As the EEOC explains, during the pre-employment process, inquiries to job applicants “should be limited to those essential for determining if a person is qualified for the job.” As the EEOC also explains, “race, sex, national origin, age, and religion are irrelevant in such determinations.” This also extends to all of the other protected characteristics listed above.

Hiring and Job Assignments

Similar to private employers, federal agencies must make decisions regarding hiring and job assignments based solely on employees’ qualifications. This applies both with regard to individual employees and with regard to broader job assignment policies. As an example, the EEOC states that federal employers “may not segregate employees of a particular national origin from other employees.”

Pay and Benefits

The same basic principles apply when determining federal employees’ pay and benefits. Federal agencies cannot make pay and benefit determinations based on race, religion, pregnancy, sex or any other protected characteristic.

Terms and Conditions of Employment

Along with pay and benefits, federal employers are also prohibited from considering any discriminatory factors when determining employees’ other terms and conditions of employment. This applies to all terms and conditions “however small,” including work locations, the ability to take breaks and leave, access to training opportunities, and more.

Reasonable Accommodations

Federal employers must provide reasonable accommodations to employees who need them due to a disability, religious practice or religious belief. Failure to provide a reasonable accommodation when requested is a form of discrimination for which affected employees can—and should—take legal action.

Promotions and Raises

Just as federal employers cannot make discriminatory decisions regarding initial job assignments and compensation, they cannot make discriminatory decisions regarding promotions and raises. All federal employees must have equal opportunities, and all federal employees must receive equal pay for equal work.

Discipline and Termination

While federal employees can face discipline and termination on various grounds, taking adverse employment action based on employees’ protected characteristics is strictly prohibited. This applies to all forms of discipline, from short-term suspensions and demotions to indefinite suspensions and removal.

Employment References and Job Referrals

Finally, in addition to prohibiting all forms of discrimination in relation to an employee’s tenure with the U.S. government, the nation’s anti-discrimination laws also prohibit federal employers from considering current and former employees’ protected characteristics when providing employment references or job referrals.

Proving that You are a Victim of Discrimination as a Federal Employee

While federal employees have clear rights under the nation’s anti-discrimination laws, proving discrimination can be a challenge. Oftentimes, federal employees (and former federal employees) simply don’t have access to the records they need to prove that they are victims. An experienced federal employment lawyer can assist with collecting the evidence you need, and if you believe you are a victim, you should discuss your situation with a lawyer as soon as possible.

Discuss Your Discrimination Claim with a Federal Employment Lawyer in Confidence

If you need to know more about filing an employment discrimination claim against the federal government, we encourage you to contact us promptly. To discuss your claim with an experienced lawyer in confidence, call 410-514-6099 or send us your contact information online now.