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  1. Blog
  2. Guides to Discrimination
  3. February 16, 2023

Are You Being Discriminated Against at Work? 10 Signs to Look Out For

Learn the red flags

Woman working on a laptop
Photo courtesy of Christina @

Workplace discrimination happens to job applicants, new hires, and existing employees. 

A survey found that almost three in five U.S. workers have experienced discrimination based on their age, race, gender, or LGBTQ+ identity, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received over 61,000 workplace discrimination charges in 2021

Sometimes, it’s an obvious, direct action, like being demoted because you become pregnant, and other times, it’s more subtle, like being edged out of an important meeting because of your accent. Discriminatory practices are often embedded in company culture and can impact how a team operates, who they hire, and who they promote.

Discrimination is common, but it can also be difficult to identify. Learn about 10 types of discrimination in the workplace and what employees can do if they feel they’re being discriminated against. 

Read more: 4 Types of Discrimination in the Workplace & How to Prevent Them

3 red flags that can indicate discrimination

1. There’s a lack of diversity within the company

If you notice that the workplace you’re applying to work at is relatively homogenous in terms of race, age, gender, or other demographics, this could indicate a culture of discrimination. Women are much more likely to experience workplace discrimination, according to the Pew Research Center, and this is more likely to happen when the workplace is dominated by men. The study also found that women, more so than men, report being treated as if they're incompetent, receiving less support from senior leadership, and being passed over on important assignments.

Inquire about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at the company when you’re interviewing, and if there’s a lack of diversity in ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical abilities, or religion and no plan in place to address the homogeneity, consider it a red flag for workplace discrimination. 

Read more: 10 Questions to Ask a Prospective Employer About Their Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion

2. Coworkers don’t respect your pronouns

Using personal pronouns in the workplace can help signify your identity, show you’re an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, and create a more inclusive work environment. But it can be exhausting, anxiety-provoking, and even painful for LGBTQ+ employees to continuously correct a colleague or boss’ incorrect use of pronouns.

Accidental misuse of a coworker’s pronouns doesn’t violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but intentionally or repeatedly using the wrong pronouns can lead to a hostile work environment where employees don’t feel safe or respected. And this type of blatant disrespect or teasing can definitely lead to illegal discrimination down the line.

Read more: Allyship 101: What’s the Point of Pronouns in Email Signatures?

3. Groupthink occurs often

Groupthink happens when your team makes a questionable but unanimous decision—with no dissenting views considered or discussed. This can be especially challenging for employees belonging to minority groups who already are disadvantaged in the workplace. The dominant group views anyone with a difference of opinion as suspect, and pressures them to give in to the decision of the majority.

“If you have an office full of white people, whatever products that come out of that office are more likely to be geared more toward white people,” says Alex Harris, a manufacturing engineer and fundraising chair for the National Society of Black Engineers. “The less diversity there is in a workplace environment, the more likely major design flaws will be present that only affect people of color.”

It’s an issue that also leads to discrimination. For instance, if you’re the only Latina woman in an office full of white men and your ideas are constantly ignored in favor of the dominant group’s opinion, you might be subjected to unfair treatment and discrimination. 

7 signs you’re being discriminated against at work

4. The job posting includes discriminatory language

When reading descriptions, there are subtle ways to suss out potential bias or discrimination. Look out for age-specific adjectives in the job description that could be exclusive, like “young professional” or “digital native.” DEI professional Celeste Ribbins says, “For startups in particular, they may want ‘fresh and energetic’ employees to get their business off to a strong start, but that terminology can be code for young and suggests bias against older workers.” 

Wording like “native English speaker” in positions that requires a certain level of language competency or bilingualism excludes candidates of another ethnicity who speak English as a second language. 

Gender-coded words are another type of bias to look out for. Words like fearless, ambitious, decisive, headstrong, assertive, outspoken, driven, and superior are male-coded words, which means they can deter women from applying, even subconsciously. When a job description describes duties and uses pronouns like “he will use Javascript to code,” that can be another form of gender discrimination.

Ableist discrimination is rife within job descriptions as well. One example of ableism in job descriptions is the way physical demands are described, including requirements of being able to lift a certain amount of weight. If a candidate has a physical disability, they might also feel excluded by the use of certain words like “speak” or “carry.”

Read more: Gender-Neutral Terms for the Workplace & Beyond

5. The hiring manager asks you illegal interview questions

Interview questions about race, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, marital status, and parental status are all illegal in the United States, according to the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Laws. Personal details not related to the position, like family status, for example, can influence a hiring decision, even if it wasn’t the interviewer’s intent.

Example illegal interview questions can include:

  • Do you have children?

  • When did you graduate high school?

  • Do you own a home or rent?

  • Are you a citizen?

  • Do you have a disability?

  • What is your gender identity?

  • Are you single or married?

  • Do you have children or do you plan to?

  • Where are you from originally?

  • What is your maiden name?

Questions about salary history can promote gender-based discrimination, as well. “...By asking what a female applicant earned at her last job, hiring managers, intentionally or not, [perpetuate] wage discrimination on the basis of gender,” says lawyer Sara Kane. “Since it is extremely likely that a woman was already being paid significantly less than her male counterparts, by allowing a company to negotiate using a female applicant’s already reduced rate of prior pay, it continues the endless cycle of discriminatory pay.”

If you’re asked an illegal interview question, PwC talent acquisition manager Allison Muer says, “[You] should politely steer the conversation away from the inappropriate topic and talk to the recruiting manager after the interview about their discomfort with the question asked.” You can also refuse to answer, ask a question in response, redirect the conversation, refuse the job offer, or report the question. 

Read more: 6 Red Flags To Look for During Interviews

6. You’re subjected to verbal harassment 

Verbal abuse isn’t always someone shouting an insult—although it very well can be. Oftentimes, verbal abuse in the workplace is more subtle and includes language that’s intimidating, threatening, humiliating, discriminatory, degrading, insulting, or false. 

Examples of verbal abuse and harassment at work can include:

  • Discriminatory language, like racial slurs, insults, or degrading language based on gender, sexual orientation, or ability

  • Sexually harassing language, like sexual innuendo, comments about someone’s physical appearance, or discussion of sex or sex acts

  • Calling someone out for poor performance in front of their coworkers or boss

  • Spreading gossip or lies about someone in the office

  • Blaming a coworker for something they didn’t do or weren’t entirely responsible for

  • Verbally trivializing, minimizing, arguing with, or dismissing concerns raised in the workplace

  • Constantly interrupting or undermining coworkers

  • Threats to personal safety or property

Read more: 4 Things I Learned from Suing Amazon for Harassment and Discrimination

7. You’re passed over for promotions 

Not everyone who should be promoted is—this is especially true when it comes to women and people of color when compared to white men. An Equality in Tech report from Dice found that 47 percent of women say they’ve witnessed discrimination with leadership opportunities, 45 percent with promotional opportunities, and 32 percent with project opportunities—more than double each respective response from male respondents.

Oftentimes, this is due to promotion discrimination, when an employee is passed over for a promotion for an unlawful reason. It’s unlawful for an employer not to promote an employee because of their gender, race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, disability, or age.

There are a ways to help you determine if you’re being discriminated against in the promotion process:

  • Are you qualified for the position you were passed over for? If you meet all of the qualifications for the job, it's more likely that discrimination could’ve been a factor.

  • Do you know if any other employees were promoted ahead of you? If they don't have the same qualifications as you do or they're part of a protected group, that could be evidence of discrimination.

  • Has your employer offered any reasoning for why you weren't promoted? If they give a reason that isn't related to your qualifications or performance, that could be discrimination.

8. You’re not being paid equally

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 is a federal law that requires men and women be paid equally for equal work in the same establishment. All forms of pay are covered by the law, including salary, overtime pay, bonuses, stock options, profit sharing, life insurance, vacation and holiday pay, travel reimbursements, and benefits.

Despite there being a law in place, wage discrimination still happens often. Women remain underpaid in comparison to men in the United States—women are paid 82 cents for every dollar a man is paid. And for women of color, women who also do unpaid work, and women who are disabled, the gap is even larger.

To find out if you’re being discriminated against in terms of your compensation, you might have to ask your coworkers how much money they make. You need to know the size of your deficit in order to bring up the issue to human resources.

9. Your role changes once you become pregnant

Despite federal protections such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), working mothers still face pregnancy discrimination.

Here’s how the PDA protects women:

  • Employers are prohibited from using pregnancy as a reason to not hire a potential employee.

  • Pregnant employees don’t need to complete any special procedures or tests to evaluate their job performance (unless it’s also required for all employees).

  • Your job can’t be altered in any way because of your pregnancy. That applies to firing, modifying job duties, benefits, and requesting that you take a leave of absence.

  • Under employer-provided health care, pregnancy conditions must be treated the same as other health conditions. Any pregnancy-related conditions that prevent an employee from working must be treated in the same way that other short-term disabilities are treated.

  • Under the FMLA, you’re legally entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave during any 12-month period. 

If you haven’t experienced these protections, your employer could be discriminating against you. For example, if you’re pregnant and are passed up for a promotion or raise and think it may be because of your pregnancy, your employer could be violating the PDA.

10. Your religious accommodations aren’t respected

According to Title VII, employers must reasonably accommodate employees’ religious beliefs or practices, unless it’s “an undue hardship on the employer's operation of its business.” Examples of common religious accommodations might include flexible work hours, voluntary shift substitutions, job reassignments, or modifications to workplace policies like dress codes.

Here are a few examples of what religious discrimination might look like in the workplace:

  • Unequal time off policies—especially for holiday observances. Some employees have to use more personal or vacation days to observe religious holidays.

  • Workplace meetings planned on religious holidays, parties that don’t honor religious dietary restrictions, or holiday celebrations that are for certain religious holidays but not others.

  • Stereotypic remarks and derogatory comments about physical appearance or personality. 

  • Blaming a coworker’s mistake, a coworkers’ promotion, etc. on their religion.

  • Threats of violence made against coworkers because of their religion.

What should you do if you’re being discriminated against?

If you believe you’re being discriminated against, you can first talk to your manager or human resources department if you feel comfortable doing so. If you’re not comfortable broaching the subject with them or they aren’t responsive, you’re protected by federal law. The EEOC enforces several civil rights laws that protect people from discrimination in the workplace. 

Employees can file a complaint with the EEOC to request an investigation that could potentially lead to a lawsuit against the employer. To file a formal discrimination complaint, you must work at a business with 15 or more employees and believe that your unfair treatment or discrimination has become illegal. Remember, discrimination doesn’t have to be intentional for it to be illegal.

In order to file a complaint, you’ll need to provide a description of the discriminatory action, when the action took place, why you believe the discrimination occurred (for example, because of your race, sexual orientation, age, etc.), the name of your employer, and their contact information. If the EEOC finds that a law was violated, a settlement will be the next step. If they aren’t able to find that the law was violated, the agency will allow you to file a lawsuit in court. 

Everyone deserves to work in a safe environment where they feel a sense of belonging and respect. If you’re being discriminated against, it’s well within your rights to take action to protect yourself and your wellbeing.

Read more: How to Report Discrimination at Work

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