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Prevent Genetic Discrimination in Employment

Alyssa Keehan, Esq.
October 2020
Guidelines to avoid genetic discrimination claims at your school

Genetic discrimination occurs when an employer treats a person differently because they have a gene that causes or increases the risk of an inherited disorder. Many individuals fear that employers will attempt to reduce health care costs by terminating employees with genetic markers for costly disorders. Since a person's genes are unchangeable, and everyone is at risk of being a victim, the public favors remedies for victims of genetic discrimination.

The Genetic Nondiscrimination Act of 2008

Congress passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) after several employers performed genetic tests on employees without their knowledge or consent and generated a public outcry. The act, which applies to employers of 15 or more employees, prohibits discrimination against employees and job applicants because of their genetic information. It restricts employers from requesting or purchasing such genetic information and asking employees or applicants about the health of their relatives. It also limits employer disclosure of genetic information.

Claims Trends

Since GINA became effective in November 2009, many genetic discrimination claims were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Some states have also enacted their own genetic discrimination laws. Rapid scientific advances in identification of genetic markers could lead to more claims, so educational institutions need to take proactive measures to ensure GINA and state law compliance.

Avoid Genetic Discrimination Claims

These steps can help your school, college, or university avoid claims of genetic discrimination:

  • Understand the definition of genetic information. Schools may conduct pre-employment physical exams as long as they do not inquire into family medical history.
  • Guard access to genetic information. Employers can lawfully receive genetic information in many situations, such as an employee's participation in a wellness program or documentation of a disability. In these cases, the employer must keep all genetic information in a confidential medical file.
  • Realize that exceptions to GINA are narrow. Federal regulations establish that an employer overhearing a conversation between employees about genetic information is permissible; however, an employer actively listening to such a conversation violates GINA.