Can My Employer Discriminate Against Me because of My Marital Status?

“Marital status” discrimination is exactly what it sounds like:  it is when an employer treats an applicant or employee differently because of their marital status, whether they are single, married, widowed, divorced, or unmarried with a same-sex or opposite-sex partner.  An employer might use an applicant or employee’s marital status to make decisions on hiring, assigning responsibilities, giving promotions, and giving bonuses.  If any of these decisions is based on the individual’s marital status, the employer is in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and can be subject to legal action.

Generally, this type of discrimination is more prevalent during the application process. That is why California has made it illegal for an employer to even ask questions during an interview or on an application that reference an applicant’s marital status.  Questions such as, “Are you married?”, “Do you have a family”, and “Do you plan to have a family in the near future?” are considered discriminatory, and therefore, are in violation of FEHA.

Marital status discrimination is sometimes difficult to pinpoint because it is often construed as discrimination based on sex or disability.  For example, if an employer gives a single male employee a promotion over an equally qualified married female employee for fear that the married employee may have more familial obligations, that would be classified as marital status discrimination though the initial reaction may be to classify it as gender discrimination.  Similarly, if a single female employee is given the promotion over a recently married female employee for fear that the recently married employee may start having children and thus need maternity leave, would also be classified as marital status discrimination.

Your decision to remain single, get married, or even get a divorce should not be a decision that impacts your employment status.  If you believe you have been discriminated against based on your marital status, you should consult an employment attorney to learn your rights.