In many cases, there are laws that discourage employers, landlords, and agencies from openly disqualifying applicants according to race, age, ethnicity, and other criteria. A landlord cannot reject a black applicant's application for an apartment based strictly on his or her race, for example, nor can an employer deny an interview to a 55 year old applicant based on his or her age. That would be considered illegal discriminatory behavior. There are no such laws against a practice known as preferential treatment, however, wherein a person receives a benefit because he or she fits the criteria.
Preferential treatment is sometimes viewed as reverse discrimination, since it rewards someone for being in the "correct" race, gender, economic status, religious affiliation or other category. An employer may not be allowed by law to discriminate against any applicant protected under law, but he or she can still show a preference towards applicants who meet certain unspoken standards. An employer may prefer to work with men instead of women as a rule, or may hire a candidate based on his or her physical attractiveness.
Because such treatment does not often rise to the level of discrimination, it can be very difficult to prove or overcome. It is not illegal in many cases to promote certain employees based on personal preferences alone. If a white employee is promoted over a minority employee based on a perceived work ethic or seniority, for example, it could be construed as preferential treatment but not legal discrimination based on race. This type of treatment can also be translated as a positive form of discrimination, in which a person actually receives better treatment based on his or her gender, race, or age.
Some sources use the controversial practice called affirmative action. Originally designed to counter discriminatory hiring practices, affirmative action programs may actually force employers to hire or promote employees based solely on race. In order to achieve the proper ratio of Caucasian and minority employees, some companies may have to show a preference towards minority applicants. Lawsuits involving charges of ageism or gender bias may also result in some preferential treatment towards applicants who fit that criteria.
Preferential treatment is not strictly illegal under most circumstances, although rejected job applicants or potential renters may believe otherwise. Discrimination laws have helped level the playing field when it comes to fair consideration of an applicant's qualifications, but the people who make the final decisions are not always obligated to base their actions on completely objective criteria. As long as the treatment does not extend into clear discrimination, employers and landlords are typically free to hire or accept the applicants they feel would make the best fit.