Discrimination in the Workplace

Discrimination in the workplace takes place when an employer discriminates against an employee in relation to work-related decisions, including such issues as hiring, firing, promotions, and availability of benefits. There are federal and state laws in place to protect employees from discrimination in the workplace. To explore this concept, consider the following discrimination in the workplace definition.

Definition of Discrimination in the Workplace


  1. The discrimination in favor of or against an employee based on a group, category, or class to which the individual belongs, rather than on individual merit.

What is Discrimination in the Workplace

According to federal and state laws, it is illegal for an employer to treat a person unequally based on his or her race, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, or disability. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandates that no person employed by, or seeking employment with, a company that has 15 or more employees can be discriminated against based on any of these factors. While federal law prohibits discrimination in the workplace, most states have enacted their own laws regarding workplace discrimination.

Discrimination in the workplace covers any work related issues, and it is important for employers to take care that the company handbook, policies, and practices are uniform, regardless of employee race, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, or disability. Even a policy that applies to all employees, regardless of these factors may be illegal if it creates a negative impact on the employees. For example, if an employer has a hair style policy that applies to all employees, it may be unlawful if the policy is not job related, and impacts a certain race due to a predisposition of natural hair types.

Gender Discrimination

Gender discrimination, also referred to as “sex-based discrimination,” or “sexual discrimination,” involves the unfavorable treatment of a person based on his or her gender. Gender discrimination also refers to individuals with gender identity issues, or transgender status. Sexual discrimination laws make it illegal to base hiring, firing, job assignments, promotions, fringe benefits, and more on an individual’s gender.

For example:

Quick Numbers accounting firm gives employees an annual raise. After Jennifer has been passed over for a raise three years in a row, she discovers that the company consistently gives raises to all male employees, and only to male employees. This constitutions gender discrimination, as the female employees are not afforded the same benefits as the men.

Bona Fide Occupational Qualification

Although Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees for a variety of issues, it also recognizes the need of some employers to hire employees with certain qualities. For instance, hiring employees based on attributes such as sex, national origin, or religion when such attribute is a necessary qualification of the job, is considered “permissible discrimination.”

In addition, educational or other institutions that are owned, controlled, or managed by a particular religion, are allowed to hire for key positions based on the applicant’s religious affiliation. Even in this context, the position being filled must have a legitimate requirement of religious affiliation. For instance, a private Catholic school may legally insist on employing a member of the Catholic church for the position of President, dean, or chaplain, but considering only Catholic applicants for positions such as janitor, school cook, or secretary would likely be seen as discrimination.

Age Discrimination

Age discrimination occurs when an employer treats an applicant or employee less favorably based on his or her age. Age discrimination is most commonly seen with older employees and applicants, as some employers attempt to force certain employees into retirement to cut their bottom line, or refuse to hire applicants over a certain age. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 prohibits discrimination against employees over the age of 40, though some states have enacted laws making it illegal to discriminate against workers based on age. It is also unlawful for an employee to be harassed based on age.

For example:

Roger has been employed at Capital Manufacturing for 28 years, and has steadily risen through the ranks to his current position as a senior line supervisor. Although Roger started working at the company for minimum wage, raises through the years ensure he has a very comfortable salary now.

The company is going through some financial difficulties, and the board of directors decides that it would be a good idea to let some of the most senior employees go, as their salaries are a large drain on the payroll. For this purpose, Capital Manufacturing institutes a mandatory retirement age of 65, which will leave 67-year old Roger out in the cold. This is considered age discrimination.

Setting a policy of mandatory retirement at a specified age is considered age discrimination in the U.S., and is illegal, as is asking an employee to retire because of his or her age. There are, however, certain occupations which require high levels of physical fitness, emotional skill, or mental sharpness, which may necessitate retiring employees when they reach an age at which they cannot keep up with the demands of the job. These occupations include airline pilots, air traffic controllers, law enforcement officers, and firefighters.

Racial Discrimination

Racial discrimination refers an employer’s unfavorable treatment of a person because of his race, or any characteristics associated with a specific race, such as skin color, or hair texture. Racial discrimination also covers the poor treatment of a person based on his or her marriage to someone of a certain race, or association with a certain racial group. Racial discrimination may be perpetrated by an employer toward an employee or applicant of the same race, or against an employee or applicant of a different race.

Racial discrimination in the workplace may also include harassment of any employee based on his or her race. This includes making, or allowing others to make, racial slurs or derogatory remarks, or allowing the display of any racially-offensive symbols.

For example:

A law firm has a single open position for a lawyer specializing in financial cases, to which they intend to promote an existing employee. One of the candidates is a white man with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, who has advised the firm on such cases for four years. The other candidate is an African-American employee who has a master’s degree in accounting, and a law degree.

The firm promotes the white male candidate, altering the position to allow a junior attorney to work together with him. This leaves the other applicant believing that he was not offered the promotion based on his race, rather than on a lack of qualifications for the job.

Religious Discrimination

Religious discrimination involves poor treatment of an employee or applicant based on his or her religious beliefs or affiliation. Anti-discrimination laws protect people who belong to traditional, organized religions, as well as people who have sincere ethical or moral beliefs, without claiming a specific religious affiliation. Laws against religious discrimination also prohibit unfavorable treatment of an employee based on his or her marriage to someone associated with a particular religion, as well as workplace harassment based on religious beliefs.

Additionally, the law forbids job segregation based on religious beliefs, preferences, or affiliation. For example, it is illegal for an employer to assign an employee to a position that does not involve customer contact due to his religious affiliation. Anti-discrimination laws also require employers to make a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious practices, unless it would cause a burden to the operation of the business. For instance, an employer may be required to work around an employee’s need to attend to certain religious ceremony during the work day, by allowing him to take a regularly scheduled break at a different time that originally scheduled.

Employers are not, however, required to alter the way they do business, or make allowances in ways that would cause undue hardship on the business. Employers are not required to make accommodations which:

  • are too costly
  • compromise workplace safety
  • infringe on the rights of other employees
  • require other employees to do more than their share of burdensome or hazardous work
  • decrease workplace efficiency

No employer may force any employee to participate in a religious activity or observance as a condition of employment.

For example:

Rhonda’s new employer, during her orientation, explained that all of the employees meet in the large breakroom before the start of the workday, for group prayer. The next day, when Rhonda tried to thank her supervisor for the opportunity, and said she would prefer not to participate, she was told that the pre-workday group prayer is required of all employees. While an employer does not have to alter its own practice of a religious custom, requiring an employee to participate is considered religious discrimination.

Dealing with Discrimination in the Workplace

If an employee is dealing with discrimination in the workplace, he should carefully document all instance of the discrimination or harassment. This may be done by writing down the date, time, and details of each discriminatory act, as well as by keeping copies of voicemails, emails, text messages, as well as any physical evidence, which prove the discrimination. Such documentation, as well as a list of other people who may have witnessed the acts, may be important to an investigation.

The employee should report workplace discrimination, in writing, to his employer right away, keeping a copy of the notice. This ensures that, even if the problem has to be reported to a higher authority, the employer cannot claim ignorance of the situation.

While the state in which the victim is employed may have an agency assigned to investigate discrimination in the workplace, the victim can always contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). The EEOC oversees compliance with anti-discrimination laws. Many state employment agencies are able to provide information to both employers and employees, and guide them in reporting workplace discrimination.

Legal Consequences of Discrimination in the Workplace

Workplace discrimination affects everyone involved, both employer and employee. Legal consequences of discrimination in the workplace often takes the form of penalties and fines imposed by governmental agencies tasked with monitoring and preventing such discrimination. In addition to fines that may be quite large, depending on the circumstances, an employer may be subject to civil lawsuits filed by wronged employees.

Such lawsuits necessitate obtaining counsel, which is not inexpensive, and if the employer loses the lawsuit, it will likely be ordered to pay the victim employee’s legal fees as well. Damages in a civil lawsuit for workplace discrimination are generally financial in nature, and may include compensatory damages, back pay to the employee, and punitive damages. Such an employer may also be ordered to reinstate a wrongfully terminated employee.

An employer may face more than legal consequences of discrimination in the workplace, as accusations of discrimination that make it into the public spotlight often lower public opinion of the employer. This often results in decreased sales or patronage.

Examples of Discrimination in the Workplace

The EEOC, as well as state anti-discrimination agencies, are busy every day answering claims of discrimination in the workplace. The agencies frequently conduct investigations into such allegations, and when appropriate, file civil lawsuits against employers found to be engaging in discriminatory acts. The following are real-life examples of discrimination in the workplace.

Employer Allowing Age Discrimination and ADA Violations

In 2014, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against Wal-Mart Stores of Texas, LLC, claiming that the store had discriminated against the manager of their Keller, Texas store, and ultimately discharged him because of his age. According to the lawsuit, the victim, David Moorman, was subjected to frequent taunts made by his direct supervisor, who called him an “old man,” and an “old food guy.” The suit also claimed that Walmart had refused to make a reasonable accommodation for Moorman to manage his diabetes, which is discrimination based on disability.

Walmart’s conduct had violated both employment discrimination laws, and laws under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Ultimately, Walmart settled the case, paying Moorman $150,000 in damages, and agreed to provide training to their employees on the ADA and the ADEA requirements.

Ali Aboubaker Successfully Sues County over Workplace Discrimination

In 2008, Ali Aboubaker, an American citizen who is a practicing Muslim, with four advanced degrees, was fired from his job of 17 years, ostensibly because he refused to start work five minutes before the start of his scheduled shift. Aboubaker filed a lawsuit against his employer, Washtenaw County, claiming he was harassed, discriminated against, and taunted at work based on his religion, and his appearance.

Aboubaker, a native of Tunisia, is an African-American and U.S. citizen. He claimed that the majority of derogatory remarks made to him were about his long beard, which is worn as a symbol of his faith, and that his employer failed to take any action to stop the behavior.

During trial, the County tried to prove that Aboubaker was fired because he had a history of insubordination and poor work performance. Aboubaker’s employer also said that at most, Aboubaker’s complaints have pointed “only to stray, isolated comments and utterances.” The jury believed Aboubaker’s accounts, and ruled in favor of him, awarding him $1.2 million in damages at the end of his two-week trial.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Law – The body of law dealing with private matters between individuals and corporations and other entities.
  • Disability – A person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.