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Discrimination in the workplace: A complete overview and what to do about it

October 6, 2021 - 16 min read


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What is discrimination in the workplace?

The evidence is in the data

The organizations that protect against discrimination

Discrimination vs. harassment

7 types of discrimination in the workplace

How to identify discrimination in the workplace

How to file a discrimination complaint

4 initiatives to promote a healthy work environment

What is discrimination in the workplace?

Discrimination in the workplace happens when a person or a group of people is treated unfairly or unequally because of specific characteristics. These protected characteristics include race, ethnicity, gender identity, age, disability, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or national origin. Discrimination in the workplace can happen between coworkers, with job applicants, or between employees and their employers. Whether on purpose or by accident, discrimination, regardless of intention, is illegal.

The evidence is in the data

Anti-discrimination laws have been in place for over fifty years — yet most Americans believe that they’re facing discrimination in one way or another. About three in five people have experienced age discrimination in the workplace. 49% of Black human resources professionals and 35% of Black workers feel that there is discrimination in their workplaces (almost four to five times more than their white colleagues). And a 2020 study found that the LGBTQ+ community experienced significant discrimination in their personal lives, the workplace, and even in their access to health care.

Whether we want to believe it or not, employment discrimination is real and present. Even if you believe your workplace is immune, your workforce is certainly affected.



The organizations that protect against discrimination

Many of us may not be familiar with our rights and protections under the law. Generally speaking, all protected characteristics fall under one or more of these anti-discrimination laws. Some of the laws and organizations that protect people from workplace discrimination include:

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

The EEOC is the branch of the federal government tasked with protecting employee rights. Most companies with more than 15 employees are covered under EEOC law. The EEOC has the authority to investigate discrimination charges of discrimination against employers. They cover all kinds of workplace-related issues, including hiring, promotion, leave, pay, and firing.

Office of Civil Rights

The Office of Civil Rights, or OCR, deals with all issues related to health information, civil liberties, and religious freedom. They also educate communities, social workers, and other professionals on issues of privacy and freedom.

State Labor Office 

Each state runs its own Department of Labor. While they’re all bound by federal laws, specific laws may vary from state to state. You can locate and contact your local state labor office here.

Discrimination vs. harassment

Discrimination occurs when you are treated differently at work because you belong to a protected class. In other words, when you've been treated unfairly because of who you are or how you’re perceived, you've been discriminated against. Harassment, on the other hand, is unpleasant and unwanted behavior. This could be something that was said or written, or it could be physical contact. The offender or offender(s) are deliberate and persistent in their conduct, which creates a hostile environment.

According to the United States government, harassment may include ridicule, insults, distasteful jokes, physical assault, or threats. Harassment can also be sexual in nature and include unwelcome sexual advances, offensive remarks, requests for sexual favors, and/or any sexual verbal or physical contact. Once the environment becomes unwelcoming, hostile, or abusive, harassment is illegal. It’s also illegal for the target to be demoted, fired, or otherwise retaliated against for refusing to put up with it.  

7 types of discrimination in the workplace:

There are various kinds of workplace discrimation, which generally center around the above protected characteristics. Many of these are specifically protected by federal legislation. These include:

Race discrimination

Treating a job candidate or employee unfairly because of their race or any related characteristics is illegal. Color discrimination, which is when someone is treated unfairly because of their skin color or complexion, is also prohibited.

Religious discrimination

It is illegal for an employer to treat employees unfairly or adversely based on religious beliefs and practices. Companies are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees who need time, space, or other amenities to observe their spiritual practices.

Disability discrimination

Under the ADA, or Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, it is illegal to take adverse action against qualified job candidates or employees. Employers cannot refuse to hire disabled candidates, pay them an unfair wage, or deny reasonable accommodation to a person otherwise qualified to perform a given role. In addition to the ADA, disability is also protected by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination in federal employment.

Pregnancy discrimination  

Passed in 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) protects employees, jobseekers, and non-delivering expectant parents. Under this law, employers must treat pregnancy in the same way that they would handle a temporary illness or other non-permanent condition. You can’t be fired, denied a job or promotion, or have your pay reduced because you are expecting a child.

Age discrimination

Age discrimination laws prevent employers from specifying age preference in job descriptions, internships, or other company documents, like promotion criteria. The ADEA, or Age Discrimination in Employment Act, protects employees over 40. Companies are also prohibited from denying benefits, compensation, and incentives based on age.


Sex and gender discrimination

There are multiple laws, notably the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that protect the rights of people to receive equal pay for equal work. Under these laws, job content, not title, “determines whether jobs are substantially equal.” It is also illegal to specify preference for a particular sex of gender in a job posting or description.

LGBTQ+ discrimination

The U.S. Supreme Court determined in 2020 that an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Right Act. It is also illegal to deny fair compensation, employment, or workplace benefits based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

How to identify discrimination in the workplace

Recognizing discrimination in the workplace is tricky. It’s the kind of thing that you might feel before you’re able to pinpoint it — and even more time may pass before you’re able to document and prove it. Hostile behavior in the workplace often gets written off as “harmless,” “joking,” or unintended — and in some cases, it is. However, the case could be made that repeated “harmless, unintentional” behavior is, at some point, no longer unintentional.

Here are a few subtle examples of discrimination in the workplace:

Lack of diversity

Workplaces that lack diversity tend to be guilty of discrimination on some level — even if they don’t mean to be. That’s because the proof is very much in the pudding. When people don’t feel welcome, they don’t stick around. If your work environment is only attracting a certain kind of person, it may be worth investing in a DEI consultant — or a good employment attorney. It’s only a matter of time before you’ll need one or the other.


When people rock the boat or speak out, are you noticing that they don’t seem to have a job for much longer? Do those outspoken employees soon lose their jobs? Workplaces that empower discriminatory or abusive behavior tend to do so by intimidating would-be whistleblowers. If you’re considering speaking up, but being “encouraged” not to do so, that’s a sign that something’s up in your organization.

Offensive comments or language

What’s normal conversation in your workplace? Would you feel comfortable with the CEO listening to your conversation, or publishing them online? Would you talk the same way in front of a new hire or potential investor? If your workplace needs to clean up its banter, you may want to drop the inappropriate comments from the conversation entirely.

Inappropriate questions

Does your employer regularly ask personal questions that aren’t related to your role? Did you find yourself fielding some odd questions in an interview? While sometimes personal questions are innocuous, your employer or employer-to-be may not have the best intentions at heart. They may be looking for reasons not to give you the role or exposing their own ignorance.


How to file a discrimination complaint

Workplace discrimination claims can be filed through either your state department of labor or the EEOC. Here’s a step-by-step guide to how to escalate your complaint to the right agency.

1. Collect information

At a minimum, you’ll need to provide the name, address, and phone number of both the person being discriminated against and the business you’re filing the complaint against. However, it can help to also have the contact information for any witnesses to the abuse or unfair treatment.

2. Document your experience

Your complaint will need to contain a brief account of what happened. Include names and details such as time, date, and location. In order to establish harassment, you’ll need to show that the contact or behavior was persistent and unwanted, so document all relevant incidents. It will help to demonstrate a pattern of hostility. 

3. Submit your information

You’ll want to submit your completed account of the incident to the organization that you chose. You don’t need a special form or referral in order to submit your complaint. 

You can reach out to your state’s labor office here, or locate a local EEOC office here.

4 initiatives to promote a healthy work environment

Preventing discrimination at work isn’t easy. It can be confronting, turbulent work, especially if your existing workplace has outdated habits, mindsets, and practices. But it’s work worth doing. Legally and financially, a discrimination lawsuit can be a nightmare for your organization. Beyond that, though, it creates an unhealthy work environment that doesn’t benefit anyone. You won’t get the benefits of diversity in the workplace if your environment is scaring away people that think, act, and look differently.

Here are 4 initiatives to create a healthy, welcoming workplace:

1. Look at your hiring practices 

If your organization is all people from one walk of life, you’ll need to change that to make it feel more welcoming and reduce the chances of discriminatory behavior. Restate your organization's commitment to inclusive hiring, regardless of background and disability, in the job description. Represent diversity among the panel of interviewers and ask for help in sourcing candidates from different backgrounds. 

2. Hire a DEI officer

Committed to diversity and inclusion in the workplace? Put your money where your mouth is and hire a DEI officer. This person can advise you on how to create a more welcoming workplace, create and administer training programs, and review your existing employment practices. They are often well-versed in employee’s rights as well as anti-discrimination and disability laws.

3. Reward and promote people who deserve it

Many people from under-represented backgrounds are concerned about hitting the glass ceiling in their careers. Discriminatory practices and implicit biases make it less likely that these individuals will get hired, promoted, and receive equal pay. Embody your company values by recognizing people who do excellent work, regardless of background. Consider offering incentives through an anonymous merit system. 

4. Invest in training

Teach your team about the impact of discrimination on the workplace. Make sure that they understand the negative impact it has on people at every level of the organization — regardless of demographic. Employees are happier, healthier, stay longer, and produce more when they feel respected, valued, and included.

Developing the culture of an organization is work. BetterUp coaches are adept in helping organizations foster a sense of belonging and move the needle on their DEIB initiatives. Coaching is proven to help with both compassion and communication skills — critical in dismantling bias and discrimination at work.

Discrimination, stereotyping, and bias aren’t issues that are going away anytime soon. They’re tenacious, but not insurmountable. Given the prevalence of discrimination in the workplace, thought, and the American Psychological Association’s findings on how discrimination impacts people, it’s worth the effort. Employee rights are human rights. There’s never a time that making people feel valued, appreciated, and welcome isn’t a win-win for all.


Published October 6, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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