Is it illegal for my company to treat me differently because of my husband's ethnicity?

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Question:

At my law firm, attorneys often socialize with major clients. We are expected to bring our spouses to these events. They are really important to our careers, because they cement important relationships and help bring in more business. 

I recently married a man who was born in Afghanistan. A partner mentioned that one of our biggest clients -- a military contractor -- might not be comfortable socializing with him. I pushed back immediately, pointing out that plenty of Afghanis have worked with the U.S. and its contractors in the conflict. And anyway, my husband is a graphic designer who has lived in this country for two decades; he has nothing to do with the war. The partner apologized for his comment, but  I haven't been invited to any events with this client since our conversation. If I'm being excluded because of my husband's ethnicity, is that illegal? 

Answer:

Yes, it is illegal for an employer to treat an employee differently because of the protected characteristic of the employee's family, friends, or other associates. This is called "association discrimination." For example, an employer who doesn't hire a white applicant because she has adopted a Chinese or African American child is engaged in this type of discrimination, as is an employer who doesn't promote an employee because his spouse has a disability. 

Association discrimination is illegal because the employer is treating someone differently based on race, color, ethnicity, religion, or some other characteristic. The twist that makes these cases unique is that the employer isn't basing its decision on the employee or applicant's protected characteristic, but on the protected characteristic of someone to whom the employee is close. 

Often, association discrimination comes up in the way you've described. An employer makes a comment about the associate's protected characteristic, and then the employee starts noticing that he or she is being treated differently. Of course, it's always possible that there's another explanation for being left out of these events: Perhaps the firm had already made a decision to rotate which lawyers are invited to attend, or these meetings were planned to discuss areas of law in which you don't practice. Absent this type of logical explanation that predates the partner's comment, however, you have good reason to wonder why you are being excluded. 

Your first step might be to return to the partner and ask directly why you have suddenly slipped off the guest list. If the partner has no explanation (or brings up your husband again), you may want to go to your human resources department and make an internal complaint, so the firm will be put on notice and investigate the situation. 

By the way, even if the partner was accurately recounting the client's discomfort with your husband's ethnicity, that would not be a defense to a discrimination claim. Employers may rely on customer preferences when making job decisions, if those preferences are discriminatory. 

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