Family history: it is unlawful for employers to discriminate based on family history of Illness or genetic information

Very few people may realize that discrimination by employers against employees for their family history of disease and disorders is unlawful. The law recognizes this family history and genetic predisposition towards certain disorders as genetic information. In 2008 Congress passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act making it illegal for employers to discriminate against an employee on the basis of their genetic information. Let’s take a look at how this law operates to protect against discrimination in the workplace.

How does the law define genetic information and family history?

Genetic information is any information about an individual regarding the results of a genetic test or information about the results of a family member’s genetic tests.  Family medical history is included in the definition of genetic information because it is often used to determine the risk an individual faces of acquiring a certain disease or disorder. Thus, for example, if there were a family history of heart disease, a type of cancer, or another disease, this history would qualify as genetic information.

What does the law protect?

The law prohibits employers from committing any type of discrimination or adverse employment act against an employee on the basis of their genetic information. This applies to hiring, firing, perks, benefits or any of the conditions of employment. Most importantly an employer may never use genetic information as a basis for hiring because genetic information is not relevant to an individual’s current ability to work. The law also protects against retaliation from an employer against an employee who has reported genetic discrimination to authorities.

Additional Rules against acquiring the genetic information of an employee

It is almost always unlawful for an employer to attempt to acquire the genetic information of an employee. Here are some exceptions where an employer can acquire such information:

  • If an employer inadvertently comes across the genetic information of an employee it is not unlawful. This can happen if they read it in a newspaper article or hear about it on the news. However, the employer cannot have been searching those mediums in order to intentionally acquire the genetic information
  • If an employee asks for leave to care for a sick family member the employee may be required to reveal the genetic information of the family member
  • Genetic information can be obtained if the employee voluntarily discloses it in order to receive health or medical services from the employer

In addition to these exceptions it is worth noting that employers must keep the employee’s genetic information that it has lawfully acquired in a separate file segregated from other information about the employee.


Many people may not be aware that the law protects their genetic information and family medical history. If an employer discriminates on this basis they will be subject to civil legal repercussions. There are some limited exceptions where employers may obtain this information, but if they do have it they must keep it in a separate file. To learn more about genetic information and discrimination contact a local employment attorney.[1]

[1] Genetic Information, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2014)