Discrimination In The Workplace – Here’s What You Need To Know About It

We’ve all probably heard of the term ‘discrimination in the workplace’. However, do you really know what it means?

If you have given it any thought, someone getting discriminated against or being harassed because of their race or gender probably first popped into your head. While those two cases would indeed fall under workplace discrimination, the issue is much more encompassing than you probably think. Whether you’re an employee or an employer, it’s important to identify discrimination in order to know how to avoid it.

What is discrimination in the workplace?

Workplace discrimination is the unfair treatment of an employee based on their sex, race, age, disability, genetic information, sexual orientation, or religion. Discrimination doesn’t happen only while a person is employed, but can transpire in all stages of employment, from recruitment to dismissal.

So, treating someone different from the rest of the staff just because they possess different characteristics, like a different race, gender or religion, falls under workplace discrimination.

discrimination in the workplace


Discrimination can occur between employer and employee, or between the employee and another person in the workplace, and can begin from job recruitment (if the call for employment directly or indirectly rules out a group of people; for example: “Looking for a woman for makeup artist position.”) It can also include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Denying someone a position based on the person’s personal characteristics
  • Giving one employee a contract which includes different condition from another
  • Overlooking someone for a promotion
  • Being denied training, compensation or benefits
  • Unfairly terminating a contract

Does the law protect me from discrimination in the workplace?

In most cases, yes.

Workplace discrimination is illegal if the person being discriminated against is a member of a protected category (for example gender, age, disability, religion, national origin, race, sexual orientation, and pregnancy).  The law also protects the employee from being retaliated against if they do complain or file charges for discrimination. In the US, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC)  enforces the following laws against workplace discrimination:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is the primary law against discrimination, protects someone from being discriminated based on their race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. The law also demands that employers should accommodate their employee’s religious practices unless it causes difficulties or negatively impacts the employer’s business.

discrimination in the workplace


This law also includes The Pregnancy Discrimination Act which makes it illegal to discriminate against a woman because she is pregnant, has given birth, or has a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963, makes it illegal to pay men and women differently if they are working the same or an equal position, in the same workplace.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, makes it illegal to discriminate against a person over the age of 40 because of their age.

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, protects a qualified person with disabilities from discrimination in the private sector and in state and local governments. It also demands from employers to accommodate the limitations of an applicant or employee with a disability who is otherwise qualified.

What are the types of discrimination in the workplace?

According to EEOC, these are the following types of workplace discrimination which fall under the law:

Age – treating someone unfairly or less favorably because of their age.

Disability – treating an otherwise qualified person unfavorably or denying them employment because of a disability, as well as failing to provide suitable accommodation to either their physical or mental limitations.

Equal pay – according to The Equal Pay Act, both men and women have to be paid equally if they do the same or equal work.

Genetic information – according to Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, employers cannot discriminate potential employees or employees based on their genetic information (information about someone’s genetic tests or the genetic tests of their family or their family’s medical history).

Harassment – protects individuals if the work environment has become intimidating, hostile, or offensive.

National origin – treating people unfairly because they are (or even just appear to be) from a particular country or part of the world, or if they have a different accent. It also protects people from being discriminated because they are married to someone from another country or part of the world.

Pregnancy –  treating a woman unfairly because she is pregnant, has given birth, or has a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.

Race – treating a person unfairly because they are of a certain race, or have the characteristics of a person from that race, like hair, skin color, or facial features.

Religion – treating someone unfairly because of their religious beliefs or practices or being married to someone who has them.

Sex – treating someone unfairly because of their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or sexual orientation.

Sexual harassment – making unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature against another employee.

Retaliation – protects employees from being discriminated or retaliated against if they have issued a complaint or filed a charge for workplace discrimination.

discrimination in the workplace


Sometimes, discrimination is very blatant and straightforward, other times, it may be more indirect, whereas, in some instances, employers may not even be aware that they are discriminating against someone. There is direct and indirect discrimination.

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination is treating someone unfairly or unfavorably based on their sex, race, age, disability, genetic information, sexual orientation, or religion. So, denying someone a job just because they are young and you believe they won’t be able to perform as well as someone older (or vice-versa), paying your female employees less than the male ones even if they do an equal amount of work, denying someone a promotion because you found out they’re openly gay or because they plan to start a family soon and so on.

This type of discrimination is very blatant and straightforward.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination is when a workplace enforces policies or rules which put people of a certain group at a disadvantage while claiming to be equal to everyone. This is usually much less obvious and harder to detect.

For example, requiring all your staff to work 12-hour shifts may put people who have a family to take care of at a disadvantage or asking the employees to work on Sundays can disfavor Christians, who consider Sunday a day of worship. Then, advertising a job in a way that immediately makes a number of people ineligible, (like asking for at least 10 years of experience despite someone being well-qualified with less, or asking for someone of a specific gender for no good reason.)

So employers should keep these in mind in order to avoid making their employees feel discriminated against, even unintentionally.


See also: How To Prevent Discrimination In The Workplace