Labor and Employment

What Is a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ) Defense?

By Sachi Barreiro, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law

The law recognizes that in very limited circumstances, a protected characteristic is necessary to perform a certain job. An employer is allowed to discriminate when a certain religion, national origin, age, or gender is a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) and necessary for the employer’s business operations. This is called the BFOQ defense.

Employers rarely win discrimination cases based on the BFOQ defense. However, some examples of permissible discrimination include:

  • hiring female employees as attendants in women’s restrooms or locker rooms
  • having an age cut-off for police officers and airline pilots (for safety reasons), and
  • hiring only Christians as ministers of the church.

The BFOQ defense is never available in race discrimination cases. In the eyes of the law, there is no legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for only hiring people of a particular race.

Go to the main employment discrimination FAQ for employees page.

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