Race, Color, National Origin, and Ancestry

This page was formerly ERD-14009-P


The Wisconsin Fair Employment Act prohibits employers, employment agencies, labor unions, licensing agencies, and other persons from discriminating against employees, job applicants, or licensing applicants because of their membership in specific protected categories, including race, color, national origin, and ancestry.

What actions are covered?

When an individual's race, color, national origin, and/or ancestry motivates the decision related to an employment action or licensing action, it becomes unlawful discrimination.

Specifically, the law prohibits discrimination in:

Recruitment and hiring, job assignments, pay, leave or benefits, promotion, licensing or union membership, training, layoff and firing, harassment and other employment related actions.

The statute of limitations for filing a complaint is 300 days from the date the action was taken or the individual was made aware the action was taken.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do the term's race, color, national origin, and ancestry mean?

"Race" refers to a group of people united or classified together based on a common history, nationality or geography. It includes all races, not just members of a racial minority. Racial groups include American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, Black or African American, and White. Bi-racial and multi-racial designations are also recognized.

"Color" refers to a person's skin color.

"National Origin" refers to a person's, or his or her ancestor's, country of birth or because a person has physical, cultural or linguistic characteristics of a national origin group.

"Ancestry" refers to the country, nation, tribe or other identifiable group of people from which a person descends. It can also refer to the physical, cultural or linguistic characteristics of the person's ancestors.

What kinds of actions might be unlawful?

It would be unusual for one single action or one piece of evidence to be enough to prove unlawful discrimination. However, positive responses to any of the following questions may indicate that unlawful discrimination exists.

  • Does the employer treat people of certain races or nationality groups differently than other persons in the same situation who are not in those groups?
  • Did the employer permit or engage in rude or derogatory comments, ethnic slurs or other actions directed at someone because of his/her race or national origin and was the behavior severe and pervasive enough to substantially interfere with work or create a hostile, offensive or intimidating work environment?
  • Has the employer imposed a "speak English only" rule which does not seem necessary for successful job performance? An employer can rarely justify requiring English-only policies, even during breaks and lunchtime.
  • Were people of certain races or national origin groups treated more harshly or disciplined more severely for workplace rule violations such as tardiness, absenteeism or failing to meet production standards?
  • Does it seem that race or national origin is a factor in who gets favorable or unfavorable treatment, who gets training for job advancement, who is promoted, who gets preferred vacation days, who is given flexible hours or who is placed in undesirable or dead-end jobs?
  • Does it appear that race or national origin is a factor in any term or condition of work?
  • Did an employer violate one of its policies in making a decision that adversely affected certain racial or ethnic group members?
  • Were less-qualified, non-protected class people retained while persons of certain racial or national origin groups were laid off or terminated?
  • Has there been a noticeable reduction in the number of certain racial or national origin group members in the workplace?
  • Is there a history of bias or hostility in the workplace toward certain racial or national origin groups?
  • At a job interview were questions asked about race, nationality, ancestry, or where an applicant or his or her parents were born? (Employers can ask if a person is legally able to work in the US).
  • In applying for work, were you asked to provide more or different documents than required under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)?

Other practices are also prohibited:

It is unlawful to retaliate against persons who assert their rights under the fair employment law, the family & medical leave law or other labor standards laws. It is unlawful to retaliate against persons who oppose discrimination.

Engaging in most types of genetic testing as is giving an improper honesty test.

Are there any exceptions under the law?

The law permits an employer to legally consider a person's race or national origin in a few very narrow exceptions. A few examples include:

  • Affirmative Action: A formally adopted affirmative action plan may permit an employer to consider race or national origin in the selection process.
  • Counselor: An employer seeking a staff counselor, mentor and role model for a group of teens having a certain cultural or ethnic background, may be able to demonstrate a business necessity for hiring a person from such cultural or ethnic background.
  • Actors or Models: In some cases, an employer may hire persons with certain racial or ethnic characteristics for the purposes of authenticity or for another business necessity.

Generally, however, in practically all jobs available in today's workforce, the law prohibits an employer from considering race, color, national origin or ancestry in making an employment-related decision.

How does the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) relate to the anti-discrimination law?

While the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) prohibits hiring of unauthorized workers, it also prohibits employers from singling out or otherwise treating persons differently because they are foreign born, "foreign-looking", have "foreign-sounding" names, or speak with an accent.

Work authorization documents must be reviewed for all applicants, not just those who appear to be foreign or whose primary language is not English.

Can a person be passed over for a job because of an accent or language skill level?

An employer may not refuse to hire an applicant who is reasonably able to meet job performance requirements, despite an accent or less than perfect language skills. However an employer may reject an applicant whose language skill level is such that it would significantly interfere with job performance.

Can a person be discriminated against for associating with a person of another race or national origin group?

No. The law prohibits discrimination against a person based on the race or national origin of a spouse, family member, friend or associate. Likewise, the law forbids discrimination against an individual because of his membership in an organization that advances the interests of a certain racial or national origin group.

Can employers fill jobs without advertising in public?

The law does not specify the method an employer must use in filing job vacancies but the method used must not be discriminatory. An employer who employs mostly members of one race or national origin group who only fills jobs by employee referral or word of mouth may be engaging in unlawful discrimination against other racial or national origin groups who are not represented in the employer's workforce.

Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws

Federal laws differ from state laws, as do procedures for complaints. The most common federal laws, which might apply to issues involving race, color, national origin and ancestry, are:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 E

The Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1981

For more details on federal laws and filing a federal discrimination complaint, contact:

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Phone: 414-297-1111, 414-297-1115 (TTY)

For more information

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