Breaking down discrimination in the workplace: types, causes, and solutions
By Julian Lewis • March 27, 2023
Discrimination in the workplace is a pervasive issue that can significantly impact an individual's professional and personal life. It can take many forms, including ageism, racism, sexism, ableism, and more. Unfortunately, many individuals continue to face discrimination in various workplaces, despite the legal protections against it. Understanding and addressing discrimination in the workplace is crucial for creating a thriving and equitable workplace culture that benefits everyone involved.
In this blog post, we will explore the different types of discrimination that can occur in the workplace, the causes behind it, and potential solutions to prevent and combat it. We will also highlight the importance of creating an inclusive work environment that promotes diversity, equity, and fairness for all employees.
Discrimination is the unjust or prejudicial treatment of individuals or groups based on their perceived differences, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, or disability status. Discrimination can take many forms, including denying someone employment, promotion, or equal pay because of their identity, or subjecting them to harassment or hostile treatment.
The concept of discrimination has a long and complex history. Discrimination based on identity has existed throughout human history and has been institutionalized in laws and policies in many societies. The term "discrimination" was first used in the 19th century to describe unequal treatment based on race and gained broader usage in the 20th century to encompass other forms of identity-based discrimination.
In recent decades, many societies have recognized discrimination as a significant social and legal problem and have taken steps to address it. This has included passing anti-discrimination laws, creating policies and programs to promote diversity and inclusion, and raising awareness about the harms of discrimination.
Positive discrimination vs negative discrimination
There are two main types of discrimination: positive discrimination (also known as affirmative action) and negative discrimination.
Positive discrimination involves taking proactive steps to address past or current discrimination and promote diversity and inclusion. This can include programs that give preference to underrepresented groups in hiring, promotion, or educational opportunities.
Negative discrimination, on the other hand, involves treating individuals or groups unfairly based on their identities, such as denying them employment or opportunities because of their race or gender. Negative discrimination is often illegal and violates anti-discrimination laws.
What qualifies as workplace discrimination?
Workplace discrimination can take many forms, but generally, it refers to unfair treatment or unfavorable working conditions that are based on an individual's protected status, such as race, gender, religion, age, disability status, or sexual orientation. Examples of workplace discrimination include:
Refusing to hire someone based on their protected status, or excluding certain individuals from the hiring process is considered hiring discrimination in the workplace. This form of unlawful discrimination can have significant impacts on individuals and society as a whole, as it can limit opportunities for individuals from marginalized groups, contribute to income inequality and workforce segregation, and reinforce social and economic hierarchies. In addition, hiring discrimination can harm organizations by limiting their access to diverse talent and creating negative publicity and legal liabilities.
Promotion discrimination occurs when an employer denies an individual a promotion or advancement opportunity based on their protected status or favors certain employees over others based on their identity. This can involve an employer explicitly stating that an individual will not be promoted because of their identity, or making assumptions about an individual's qualifications or suitability for a promotion based on their identity.
Pay discrimination, also known as wage discrimination, is another type of workplace discrimination that occurs when an employer pays employees different wages for the same or similar work based on their protected status, such as their race, gender, religion, age, disability status, or sexual orientation. For example, this could involve paying lower wages to employees in traditionally female or minority-dominated occupations, such as nursing or social work, compared to employees in traditionally male-dominated occupations, such as engineering or finance.
Harassment can take many forms, including sexual harassment, racial harassment, bullying, and other forms of mistreatment based on an individual's protected status. Examples of harassment in the workplace may include unwanted touching or physical contact, sexual advances or requests for sexual favors, derogatory or offensive comments or jokes, insults or slurs based on an individual's race, gender, religion, or other protected status, and intimidation or threats.
Retaliation is one of the more difficult forms of discrimination to identify and address because it often occurs behind the scenes and may not be immediately apparent to the employee or other individuals in the workplace. Adverse actions can include demotion, termination, negative job evaluations, or other forms of retaliation that impact an employee's job status or working conditions. In addition, retaliation can be difficult to prove, as employers may attempt to justify the adverse action as being unrelated to the employee's protected activity.
Refusing to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities or religious beliefs, such as accessible facilities or time off for religious observances, is another form of discrimination in the workplace. Examples of reasonable accommodations may include providing accessible facilities, modifying work schedules, providing specialized equipment or software, or allowing time off for religious observances. Failure to provide reasonable accommodations can result in employees being unable to perform their job duties effectively, being excluded from certain job opportunities, or experiencing undue hardship or discrimination.
7 types of discrimination in the workplace
Discrimination in the workplace can take many forms, and understanding the different types of discrimination that can occur is crucial for creating a thriving and equitable workplace culture that benefits everyone involved.
Let's dive into the 7 most common types of discriminatory behavior:
Age discrimination occurs when an employee is treated unfairly or disadvantaged in the workplace because of their age. It can occur at any stage of employment, from the hiring process through to termination, and can involve any aspect of employment, such as pay, promotions, job duties, training, and benefits.
Age discrimination is illegal under federal and state laws in many countries, including the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Employers found guilty of age discrimination may face penalties such as fines and legal action.
Gender discrimination refers to treating an employee differently, unfairly, or unfavorably because of their gender or gender identity/expression. An employer may discriminate against a job applicant based on their gender, such as not hiring a qualified woman because the employer believes that the job is better suited for a man. Similarly, an employer may promote male employees over female employees, even if the female employees are more qualified or have more experience.
Maternity leave discrimination is one of the most prevalent forms of gender discrimination in the United States. According to the National Women's Law Center, over 75% of mothers experience some form of discrimination in the workplace related to pregnancy, childbirth, or maternity leave. This discrimination can have a significant impact on women's career opportunities and earnings.
When an employer chooses not to hire or promote a person based on their race or ethnicity, this constitutes racial discrimination. Since the Civil Rights movement, several laws have been created to protect employees of color from racial discrimination in the workplace. The most important of these laws include:
Civil Rights Act of 1964:
This law prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Title VII of this act specifically prohibits employment discrimination based on race or color.
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Equal Pay Act of 1963:
This law requires that men and women be paid the same wages for performing the same job.
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990:
This law prohibits discrimination based on disability, which can disproportionately impact people of color.
Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967:
This law prohibits employment discrimination against people over 40 years of age, which can disproportionately impact people of color.
The Civil Rights Act of 1991:
This law amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964, providing additional remedies for employment discrimination cases and allowing plaintiffs to recover punitive damages.
In addition to these laws, many states and municipalities have passed their own laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on race or ethnicity.
Disability discrimination occurs when an employee is treated unfairly or unfavorably because of a physical or mental disability, such as a hearing impairment, visual impairment, mobility impairment, or mental health condition. It can take many forms, such as discriminatory hiring practices, pay disparities, lack of promotion opportunities, and disability harassment.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including employment. The law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, as long as the accommodations do not create an undue hardship for the employer.
Religious freedom is a protected characteristic under the United States Constitution, specifically the First Amendment. The First Amendment guarantees individuals the right to practice their religion without interference from the government or their employer. This protection extends to the workplace, where employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees to practice their religious beliefs.
Employees have the right to express their religious beliefs in the workplace, as long as it does not interfere with their job duties or create a hostile work environment. Additionally, employers cannot tolerate religious harassment in the workplace, such as making derogatory comments or engaging in inappropriate behavior based on an employee's religion.
Sexual orientation discrimination:
Overall, employers are required to provide equal opportunities and treatment for employees, regardless of their sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation. By preventing discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation, employers can create a workplace that is inclusive and respectful of all employees.
In recent years, many court proceedings have made sexual orientation discrimination an unlawful employment practice. Here are some key cases and legal protections related to sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace:
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:
In June 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is a form of sex discrimination and is therefore illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex.
State and Local Laws:
Many states and municipalities have their own laws that prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace. For example, New York State's Human Rights Law explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
President Biden signed an Executive Order on Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation on his first day in office, which directs federal agencies to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace.
There have been numerous court cases in recent years that have ruled in favor of employees who experienced sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace. One notable case is Zarda v. Altitude Express, in which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that discrimination based on sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII.
National origin discrimination:
National origin discrimination can create a hostile work environment for employees. A hostile work environment is a workplace in which an employee is subject to harassment or discrimination based on a protected characteristic, such as national origin. This can include offensive comments or behavior, exclusion from job opportunities or training programs, and other forms of mistreatment.
For example, if an employee is constantly subjected to derogatory comments or slurs based on their country of origin, it can create a hostile work environment that affects their job performance and well-being.
How to avoid workplace discrimination issues
To avoid workplace discrimination issues, employers can take several steps to ensure that their workplace is inclusive and respectful of all employees. Here are some key strategies:
Develop and enforce policies:
Employers should establish clear policies that prohibit discrimination and harassment based on any protected characteristic, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. These policies should be communicated to all employees and enforced consistently.
Provide education and training:
Employers should provide regular training to managers and employees on how to recognize and prevent discrimination and harassment. This can help to promote a workplace culture that values diversity and respects all employees.
Create a diverse and inclusive workplace:
Foster a workplace culture that values diversity and inclusion, where employees feel welcome and respected regardless of their background or identity.
Address complaints promptly:
Employers should respond promptly to any reports of discrimination or harassment, and take appropriate action to address the issue. This can include conducting an investigation, disciplining the offending employee, and providing support to the victim.
Encourage employees to report any incidents of discrimination or harassment, and ensure that there are no negative consequences for doing so.
Hold leaders accountable:
Hold leaders and managers accountable for creating a discrimination-free workplace, and ensure that they model appropriate behavior and take responsibility for addressing issues that arise.
One way to combat discrimination in the workplace is to create a positive and inclusive work environment. This can be done by promoting diversity and equity, and by creating a culture of respect and understanding.
Steps to take if you experience discrimination
Experiencing discrimination in the workplace can be a distressing and overwhelming experience. However, taking steps to address the issue is important to protect your rights and prevent further discrimination from occurring.
If you are experiencing unfavorable treatment and suspect it to be workplace discrimination, here's what you need to do:
Document the incident:
Write down the details of what happened, including the date, time, location, who was involved, and what was said or done. This can help you remember the incident accurately and serve as evidence if you decide to file a complaint.
Report the discrimination:
Bring the incident to the attention of your supervisor, HR representative, or someone in a position of authority in your company. They should have a policy in place for addressing workplace discrimination.
File a complaint:
If your employer does not take action to address the discrimination, or if you are not satisfied with their response, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a state agency that handles discrimination claims.
Talk to someone you trust, such as a friend, family member, or counselor, about what happened. They can offer emotional support and help you navigate the situation.
Know your rights:
Familiarize yourself with the laws and policies that protect you from discrimination in the workplace. This can include federal laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as any state or local laws that may apply.
In conclusion, discrimination in the workplace can take many forms and can have serious consequences for employees and employers alike. From age discrimination to gender identity discrimination, employers must take proactive steps to prevent discrimination and foster a workplace culture that values diversity and inclusion. By establishing clear policies, providing regular training, encouraging reporting, and responding promptly to reports of discrimination, employers can create a safer and more inclusive workplace for all employees.
It is important for employees to know their rights and take action if they experience discrimination, to protect themselves and others from harm. Ultimately, addressing discrimination in the workplace requires a collective effort from employers, employees, and society as a whole, to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities and treatment in the workplace.
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About Julian Lewis
Julian Lewis is a driven and accomplished professional with a passion for driving positive change in the business world. As the co-founder and COO at Zella Life, a coaching on-demand platform, he is working to bridge the diversity gap between diverse talent and internal team leaders. His own experience as a professional of color in a Fortune 500 company led him to discover the limitations for advancement that many professionals like himself face. Determined to reach his full potential, Julian became an established business coach and entrepreneur, committed to supporting others who have been culturally conditioned to remain silent in their pursuit of personal and professional growth.
Today, Julian is a recognized corporate trainer, coach, and leader, known for his ability to leverage real-life experiences and evidence-based methodologies to affect positive change within individuals and organizations. As the leader of Zella Life's coaching division, he is dedicated to empowering individuals and businesses to achieve their full potential. Julian's unique perspective and passion for coaching make him a valuable asset to any organization.