In an ideal world, employees from all different walks of life would feel welcome in the workplace. But that’s not always the case—which is why it’s so important to have conversations around workplace discrimination.
Gaining a better understanding of workplace discrimination is the first step to ensuring it doesn’t happen—whether you’re a small business owner trying to protect your employees, an employee trying to determine whether you’re experiencing discrimination at work, or a job applicant evaluating a job ad for discriminatory language.
So what, exactly, is workplace discrimination? What are the different types of discrimination in the workplace? And what protections are in place to protect job candidates and employees from discrimination?
What Is Workplace Discrimination?
Discrimination is the practice of treating someone differently (and, more specifically, negatively) based on characteristics like their age, gender, or race.
Workplace discrimination, then, is the practice of discrimination in the workplace—or, in other words, employers acting unfavorably to job candidates and/or employees based on certain characteristics (we’ll cover a full list of those characteristics in a moment).
In the United States, workplace discrimination is illegal—and there are a number of laws in place to protect employees from discrimination at work.
What Are the Different Types of Discrimination in the Workplace?
There are seven main types of discrimination in the workplace, including:
- Age discrimination, which is discriminating against a candidate based on their age
- Race discrimination, which includes discrimination based on race, skin color, ethnicity, or national origin
- Sex discrimination, which includes discrimination based on sex, gender, and/or sexual orientation
- Pregnancy discrimination, which includes discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or any related medical conditions
- Religious discrimination, which is discriminating against a candidate based on their religious beliefs
- Disability discrimination, which is discriminating against a candidate based on a mental and/or physical disability
- Retaliation discrimination, which is discrimination based on discrimination claims (for example, firing an employee because they filed a discrimination complaint about illegal employment practices)
Keep in mind that discrimination can take place at any point during the employment process—including in job ads or postings, throughout the recruitment process, while employed with a company, or during the termination/separation process.
What are the Laws on Workplace Discrimination?
Currently, there are a number of federal laws in place—enforced by the the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—that protect workers from discrimination in the workplace. These anti-discrimination laws include:
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to discriminate against another person based on race, religion, color, national origin, genetic information, or sex. An amendment to Title VII, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, makes it illegal to discriminate against people experiencing pregnancy, childbirth, or any related medical conditions. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal for a company to fire an employee based solely on their sexual orientation—extending protection to LGBTQ+ employees.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990
The Americans with Disabilities Act makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against qualified employees based on disability. Under the ADA, employers must also make reasonable accommodations to create equal opportunities for persons with disabilities.
Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967
Under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967, it’s illegal to discriminate against a current or potential employee based on age.
Equal Pay Act (EPA) of 1963
Under this Equal Pay Act, employers must give male and female employees equal pay for equal work. The law illegalized gender-based wage discrimination—or, in other words, made it illegal for employers to pay men and women different salaries for the same role based on gender alone.
In addition to these federal laws, many states also have additional state laws on the books to protect workers from employment discrimination. For example, the New York State Human Rights Law expands protection based on additional criteria, making it illegal to discriminate based on marital status, familial status, military status, gender identity or gender expression, or whether someone is a victim of domestic violence.
It’s also important to note that, under these discrimination laws, it’s not only illegal to discriminate against someone under a protected class directly; it’s also illegal to discriminate against someone based on their relationship to someone under said protected class. For example, it would be illegal for an employer not to hire a candidate because their child has a disability or their partner is a certain race or has a certain set of religious beliefs.
What Are Some Examples of Workplace Discrimination?
Even if you understand workplace discrimination in theory, it isn’t always easy to spot it in practice. What, exactly, constitutes discrimination?
Let’s take a look at a few examples of discriminatory practices to give you a sense of how unlawful discrimination might manifest in the workplace:
- In a job ad, an employer lists “must be under the age of 40” under the conditions of employment.
- An employer refuses to offer older employees the same benefits as younger employees.
- During the recruiting process, recruiters purposefully exclude job applicants over the age of 45 from their candidate pool.
- An employer refuses to hire anyone with a specific skin color.
- An employer chooses only to hire people born in the US—excluding candidates of different national origins.
- An employer fires an employee when they find out (and based on the fact that) they’re married to someone of a different race.
- During the hiring process, a recruiter asks job applicants about their sexual orientation—and makes hiring decisions based on their answer.
- An employer hires a male and female employee for the same job—and pays the male more based on his gender.
- During the sourcing process, recruiters filter based on gender—and exclude a specific gender or gender identity from a position.
- During an interview, a hiring manager asks a candidate if they’re pregnant or plan on getting pregnant in the future.
- An employer fires an employee after they request to take medical leave for pregnancy-related issues.
- Before an interview, recruiters look at candidates’ social media profiles—and refuse interviews to any who is pregnant or recently had a child.
- A company refuses to hire anyone from a specific religious group (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, etc.).
- An employer doesn’t allow their workers to adhere to their religion’s dress or grooming practices—for example, not allowing a Jewish employee to wear a yarmulke at work.
- An employer asks for job applicants' religious beliefs on an application—and uses that information to make employment decisions.
- An employer refuses to make reasonable accommodations to allow employees with disabilities to perform their job duties (for example, not making your workplace wheelchair accessible).
- An employer refuses to promote an employee because they have a disability.
- An employer chooses not to hire a candidate that has a child with a disability because they won’t be as available as other employees.
- An employer fires an employee because they initiated a discrimination complaint process with the human resources department.
- An employer refuses to hire an employee that filed a discrimination claim against a previous employer.
- An employer fires an employee after finding out they sought legal advice for a discrimination issue.
Discrimination vs. Harassment
Discrimination can take many forms, like passing over a candidate for a promotion based on race or refusing to hire someone based on their age. But one of the most aggressive forms of discrimination occurs when an employee (or group of employees) actively harasses another employee (or group of employees).
Harassment is a form of discrimination that’s defined as “active pressure or intimidation.” Harassment can take a variety of forms, including using racial harassment (like calling a colleague a racial slur) or sexual harassment (for example, a male employee continually making sexually suggestive comments to a female co-worker).
EEOC Complaints by Discrimination Type
In 2020 (the most recent year with data), 67,448 discrimination charges were filed with the EEOC. Let’s take a look at how those complaints break down:
- Retaliation: 37,362 (55.8 percent)
- Disability: 24,324 (36.1 percent)
- Age: 14,183 (21 percent)
- Race: 22,064 (32.7 percent)
- Sex: 21,398 (31.7 percent)
- National Origin: 6377 (9.5 percent)
- Color: 3562 (5.3 percent)
- Religion: 2404 (3.6 percent)
- Equal Pay Act: 980 (1.5 percent)
- Genetic Information: 440 (0.7 percent)
Arm Yourself with Knowledge about Workplace Discrimination
Understanding workplace discrimination is a must—for employers and employees alike. And now that you understand the basics of workplace discrimination, you’re armed with the information you need to stop discrimination when you see it—and create safer, more inclusive workplaces in the process.