Discrimination in the Workplace: Know Your Rights
“I never hire old people—they have such a hard time with technology.”
“This applicant has good qualifications...but he has an ethnic-sounding name. I’m worried he may not speak English very well.”
“I think we need to let Jenny go. I heard she’s planning to get pregnant this year.”
If you’ve ever heard your manager or coworkers say things like this, you’ve witnessed discrimination firsthand.
Sometimes discrimination at work is obvious. Other times it’s harder to spot. In some cases, a person may not even realize they’re behaving in discriminatory ways. But that doesn’t make their behavior okay.
Fighting discrimination in the workplace starts with knowing how to identify it and understanding your rights.
What Is Workplace Discrimination?
In general, discriminating against someone means treating that person differently or less favorably than others for any reason.
In the context of the workplace, it means discriminating against or harassing someone (harassment is a type of discrimination) because of their race, color, religion, sex, disability, pregnancy status, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, age, or genetic information.
Types of Discrimination and Legislation
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency responsible for protecting workers against discrimination. Several types of workplace-based discrimination are prohibited by federal legislation, including:
The Age Discrimination Act of 1967 protects employees or job applicants aged 40 and older from discrimination in the workplace. Employers are not allowed to specify an age preference in job advertisements (with a few rare exceptions), and companies must provide the same benefits regardless of a person’s age.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) made it illegal to discriminate against qualified job candidates and employees based on disability.
This means employers cannot refuse to hire a disabled candidate, and they are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for disabled employees and job applicants. This might mean making a workstation more accessible, providing reserved parking, or allowing for a more flexible work schedule.
Sex and Gender Discrimination
The Equal Pay Act of 1963 prohibits employers from sex-based wage discrimination. That means it’s illegal for employers to pay men and women different salaries based on their sex or gender. Employers must pay men and women equally for equal work, whether they have the same job title or not.
It’s been nearly 60 years since the Equal Pay Act was passed, yet there’s still a significant gender pay gap. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, in 2020, women earned 84% of what men earned, and 4 in 10 working women (42%) say they have experienced gender discrimination at work.
Discrimination based on a person’s race is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It’s illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or employee or treat them unfavorably because of race or color (skin color/complexion).
Certain states have expanded the definition of racial discrimination. For example, in 2019 California became the first state to outlaw racial discrimination based on hairstyle. This is particularly meaningful for Black people and people of color, who have historically faced discrimination for their hair texture or wearing certain hairstyles, such as Afros, braids, twists, cornrows, and dreadlocks.
In June 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled that firing a person for being gay or transgender violates the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This ruling expanded protection for workers in dozens of states where employers were legally allowed to discriminate based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
And yet, in other areas of life, more than half of states in the U.S. still allow for discrimination against LGBTQ people, simply because their civil rights laws don’t explicitly prohibit it. This is being challenged with the Equality Act, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation. If passed, the Equality Act would provide consistent and explicit non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people across key areas of life, including employment, housing, and more.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act—passed in 1978 as amendment to Title VII—prohibits sex discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, and/or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.
Employers are required to treat pregnancy in the same way as they would handle a temporary illness or other non-permanent condition that warrants special consideration. And job seekers have the same rights as employees under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
It’s illegal for employers to discriminate against a job seeker or employee based on their religion or religious customs, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. An employer cannot hire, fire, or segregate employees based on their religious beliefs, or base conditions of employment on religion.
Businesses are also required to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs, such as providing paid or unpaid time off for religious observances and allowing an employee to wear religion-required head coverings, regardless of the company’s established dress code.
State Anti-Discrimination Laws
Almost all states have adopted at least some anti-discrimination laws. Many offer even more expansive protections, beyond what federal law provides.
If you experience discrimination at work and your state does not explicitly state their employment protections against discrimination, you’ll need to refer to federal law.
Which Types of Discrimination Are Most Common?
Data from the EEOC reveals the most common types of discrimination, based on the reports the agency receives. In 2020, retaliation was the most frequently reported type of discrimination, followed by disability, race, sex, and age discrimination.
Here is the complete breakdown of the EEOC data (the percentages add up to more than 100% because some people alleged multiple types of discrimination):
Retaliation: 37,632 (55.8% of all charges filed)
Disability: 24,324 (36.1%)
Race: 22,064 (32.7%)
Sex: 21,398 (31.7%)
Age: 14,183 (21.0%)
National Origin: 6,377 (9.5%)
Color: 3,562 (5.3%)
Religion: 2,404 (3.6%)
Equal Pay Act: 980 (1.5%)
Genetic Information: 440 (0.7%)
If You’re Experiencing Discrimination at Work
By law, you cannot be denied employment, terminated, harassed, paid less, or treated less favorably because of your race, color, sex, religion, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, or veteran status.
And while you may not feel comfortable discussing pay with your coworkers, you have the right to ask your employer about your pay, coworkers’ pay, and the pay offered to job applicants.
If you believe your company or a prospective employer is discriminating against you, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or your state’s labor commission or agency.
You have the right to work in an environment free of discrimination and harassment. You can help tackle discrimination and harassment at work by calling it out when you see it and standing up for your rights.
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