Types of Discrimination in the Workplace

This illustration describes types of workplace discrimination including "Retaliation," "Disability," "Race," "Sex," Age," "National Origin," "Color," and "Religion."

 @ The Balance 2020

What is workplace discrimination, and what constitutes discrimination against employees or job applicants? Employment discrimination happens when an employee or job candidate is treated unfavorably because of age, disability, genetic information, national origin, pregnancy, race or skin color, religion, or sex. In addition, federal laws against discrimination protect workers from retaliation for “asserting their rights to be free from employment discrimination.”   

It is illegal to discriminate based on these protected characteristics when hiring or in the workplace.

Because it is illegal to discriminate in any facet of employment, workplace discrimination extends beyond hiring and firing to discrimination that can happen to someone who is currently employed.

What Is Workplace Discrimination?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful to discriminate in hiring, discharge, promotion, referral, and other facets of employment, on the basis of color, race, religion, sex, or national origin. This is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Civil Rights Act provision banning discrimination in the workplace protects LGBTQ employees from being fired because of their sexual orientation.

Federal contractors and subcontractors must take affirmative action to guarantee equal employment opportunity without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or national origin. Executive Order 11246 is enforced by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP).

Discrimination vs. Harassment

What's the difference between discrimination and harassment? Harassment is a form of discrimination. As with discrimination, there are different types of harassment, including unwelcome behavior by a co-worker, manager, client, or anyone else in the workplace, that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), nationality, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.

Different Types of Workplace Discrimination

Workplace discrimination occurs when an individual is discriminated against due to any number of factors. In addition to the reasons listed above, employees and job applicants can also be discriminated against because of their relationship to another person. For example, an employer is legally prohibited from refusing to hire a job candidate because their spouse is disabled and they fear that the candidate’s caregiving responsibilities may interfere with their work. This would be discrimination under the ADA, even though the candidate is not the disabled party.

Review this list of the different types of employment discrimination, examples of workplace discrimination, and tips for handling workplace discrimination issues.

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Skin Color
  • National Origin
  • Mental or Physical Disability
  • Genetic Information
  • Relationship to someone who may be discriminated against
  • Pregnancy or Parenthood

Examples of Employment Discrimination

Employment discrimination could occur in any number of situations, including:

  • Stating or suggesting preferred candidates in a job advertisement
  • Excluding potential employees during recruitment
  • Denying certain employees compensation or benefits
  • Paying equally-qualified employees in the same position different salaries
  • Discriminating when assigning disability leavematernity leave, or retirement options
  • Denying or disrupting the use of company facilities
  • Discrimination when issuing promotions or lay-offs

Discrimination Legislation and Issues

There are several types of workplace-based discrimination that have been addressed by and are protected under federal legislation. These include:

Age Discrimination in the Workplace

Age discrimination is a practice specifically prohibited by law. With a few rare exceptions, companies are forbidden from specifying an age preference in job advertisements.

Employees must receive the same benefits regardless of age, the only exception being when the cost of providing supplemental benefits to young workers is the same as providing reduced benefits to older workers. Also, age discrimination in apprenticeship programs or internship opportunities is illegal.

Disability Discrimination

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 made it illegal to discriminate against qualified job candidates or employees on the basis of disability. In practical terms, this means that employers cannot refuse to hire disabled candidates or penalize disabled workers purely for their disabilities.

Employers are required to make “reasonable accommodation” for disabled applicants and employees, which might mean making physical changes to the work environment or schedule changes to workday. 

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination in federal employment on much the same terms as the ADA.

Sex and Gender Discrimination in the Workplace

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 states that employers must give men and women equal pay for equal work. Further, the act specifies that job content, not title, “determines whether jobs are substantially equal.” 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. In short, it is illegal for employers to pay men and women different salaries based on their sex or gender. 

LGBTQ Discrimination

In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an “employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII” of the Civil Right Act.  Prior to the decision, LGBTQ candidates were protected from employment discrimination in fewer than half of U.S. states.

Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace

Pregnancy-based discrimination is illegal. Employers are required to handle pregnancy in the same way that they would handle a temporary illness or other non-permanent condition that would necessitate special consideration. Job seekers have the same rights as employees, and both are protected by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) passed in 1978.

Race Discrimination in the Workplace

It is illegal to treat either a job applicant or an employee unfavorably because they are of a certain race or because of personal characteristics associated with race. Color discrimination, which is treating someone unfavorably because of skin color complexion, is also illegal.

Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

It is illegal for employers to discriminate based on an individual's religious customs. Businesses are required to make reasonable accommodation of an employee's religious beliefs, as long as doing so doesn't have excessive negative consequences for the employer.

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is created when harassment or discrimination interferes with an employee’s work performance or creates a difficult or offensive work environment for an employee or group of employees.

Unlawful Discrimination and Harassment

It's important to note that discriminatory practices can occur in any aspect of employment. It is illegal for an employer to make assumptions based on race, gender, or age-related stereotypes, and it's also unlawful for an employer to assume that an employee may be incapable because he or she is disabled.

Additionally, companies are prohibited from withholding employment opportunities from an employee because of his or her relationship with someone of a certain race, religion, or ethnicity. Unlawful discrimination also includes harassment based on legally protected personal traits, including (but not limited to) race, gender, age, and religion.

Employment Discrimination Complaints

Under United States laws, companies are prohibited from subjecting employees to unfair treatment or blatant discrimination based on these legally-protected characteristics.

Also, it is illegal for an employer to retaliate against a person who has filed a complaint about discrimination or participated in a related investigation.

While not all unfavorable treatment constitutes unlawful discrimination, any employee who believes that he or she has experienced workplace discrimination can file a complaint with the EEOC (The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).

Distribution of EEOC Complaints

The EEOC reported the following breakdown for the charges of workplace discrimination that were received by the agency in fiscal year 2019:

  • Retaliation: 39,110 (53.8% of all charges filed)
  • Sex: 23,532 (32.4%)
  • Race: 23,976 (33%)
  • Disability: 24,238 (33.4%)
  • Age: 15,573 (21.4%)
  • National Origin: 7,009 (9.6%)
  • Color: 3,415 (4.7%)
  • Religion: 2,725 (3.7%)
  • Equal Pay Act: 1,117 (1.5%)
  • Genetic Information: 209 (0.3%)

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law. 

Article Sources

  1. EEOC. “Discrimination by Type.” Accessed June 22, 2020.

  2. EEOC. “Retaliation.” Accessed June 22, 2020. 

  3. EEOC. “Who is Protected From Employment Discrimination?” Accessed June 22, 2020. 

  4. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964." Accessed June 22, 2020.

  5.  Supreme Court of the United States. "Bostock vs. Clayton County, Georgia." Accessed June 22, 2020.

  6. U.S. Department of Labor. "Executive Order 11246, As Amended." Accessed June 22, 2020.

  7. EEOC. "Harassment. Accessed June 22, 2020.

  8. EEOC. "Prohibited Employment Policies/Practices." Accessed June 22, 2020.

  9. ADA.gov. “Americans with Disabilities Act, as Amended.” Accessed June 22, 2020.

  10. EEOC. “Disability Discrimination.” Accessed June 22, 2020. 

  11. EEOC. “Equal Pay/Employment Discrimination.” Accessed June 22, 2020. 

  12.  EEOC. “Equal Pay/Employment Discrimination.” Accessed June 22, 2020. 

  13.  Supreme Court of the United States. "Bostock vs. Clayton County, Georgia." Accessed June 22, 2020.

  14. SCOTUSblog. “Opinion Analysis: Federal Employment Discrimination Law Protects Gay and Transgender Employees (Updated).” Accessed June 22, 2020. 

  15. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978." June 22, 2020.

  16. EEOC. "Race/Color Discrimination." Accessed June 22, 2020.

  17. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Laws Enforced by EEOC," Accessed June 22, 2020.

  18. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "EEOC Releases Fiscal Year 2019 Enforcement and Litigation Data," Accessed June 22, 2020.