What’s your sign?

What’s your sign?

Can employers legally discriminate based on astrological signs? In his June 2020 dissent in Bostock v Clayton County, Georgia, which extended workplace antidiscrimination protections to LGBT employees, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito mentioned astrology as a possible hiring criterion. He wrote, “Even idiosyncratic criteria are permitted; if an employer thinks that Scorpios make bad employees, the employer can refuse to hire Scorpios. Such a policy would be unfair and foolish, but under Title VII, it is permitted.” That line of reasoning, limiting protected classes to those explicitly listed in Title VII, didn’t persuade the majority of the Court with regard discriminating against the LGBT community, but would it hold up when applied to zodiac discrimination? Is that even a thing?

Apparently, it is, although not widespread, at least not currently in the United States.

According to a May 2, 2020 Forbes article, zodiac discrimination in hiring is a well-documented problem in China. It cited a 2017 study conducted by researchers at MIT and described in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology which found that, in China, 4.3 percent of college students surveyed reported suffering employment discrimination because of their astrological sign. The researchers also found that, also in China, approximately 40% of hiring managers surveyed discussed astrological signs when making hiring decisions.

In Austria, in 2009, an insurance company posted an ad in major newspapers seeking employees for sales and management positions and specified that desired candidates must have certain astrological birth signs. The company claimed that statistics indicated that people born under those signs were the best workers. A wave of protests from equality groups led to an investigation by the country’s antidiscrimination authorities. They determined that there was nothing illegal in choosing employees according to their star signs because, like Justice Alito’s reasoning above, it did not explicitly run afoul of existing laws about gender, age, and racial discrimination.

How would that question fare in the US?

Not all discrimination is illegal. Merely choosing between candidates requires hiring authorities to discriminate based on criteria such as their educational credentials, work experience, and various “soft skills” they determine necessary for success in the position they seek to fill and to be a productive member of their organizations. The problem arises when potential employers discriminate on an illegal basis as defined by law.

California state law includes all protected classes included in federal law and goes a little further, prohibiting discrimination based on:

  • race
  • color
  • ancestry
  • national origin
  • religion
  • sex (including pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions)
  • disability: Physical or mental
  • age (40 and older)
  • genetic information
  • marital status
  • sexual orientation
  • gender identity and gender expression
  • AIDS/HIV
  • medical condition
  • political activities or affiliations
  • military or veteran status, and
  • status as a victim of domestic violence, assault, or stalking.

Other U.S. cities and states have laws protecting additional characteristics or extending protection to more employees than does federal law. For example, height and weight are protected classes in San Francisco. But no legislation, to our knowledge, addresses zodiac signs explicitly.

Because exact birth date, place, and time are necessary to create complete astrological charts, and U.S. law prohibits asking candidates about age and national origin, in-depth astrological screening would be unacceptable. Determining a candidate’s astrological sun sign, however, requires only a candidate’s day and month of birth. Would asking for that minimal information be permitted or problematic?

Whether or not it is illegal to discriminate against candidates based on their zodiac sign, it might be unreasonable since astrology categorizes and judges people not on their individual merits, talents, or abilities but rather by their date of birth. Astrology and racism are similar in that both belief systems prejudge individuals founded on general beliefs about a group. And, just as candidates have no control over their race or skin color, they have no control over when and where they were born.

In a follow-up to the MIT study of zodiac discrimination in China mentioned above, the researchers recruited 173,309 Chinese adults to report their birthday and to fill out a series of tests about personality characteristics that aligned with the various astrological sign descriptions. They concluded that, despite the large sample size, astrological signs did not significantly predict any of those personality traits, proving that astrological stereotypes are groundless.

Despite the open question of its legality, given the tenuous value of using astrology as a basis for making important hiring decisions, it might be best to view the hypothetical posed in Justice Alito’s dissent merely as reductio ad absurdum rather than a valid recruitment strategy.

Valerie Fontaine
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