Everyone deserves to feel safe and respected in their place of work, yet discrimination remains a common occurrence.
In 2019, a Glassdoor survey found that almost three in five U.S. workers experience discrimination based on their age, race, gender, or LGBTQ+ identity, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 61,331 workplace discrimination charges in 2021.
Despite being widespread, discrimination can also be difficult to identify. To ensure that discrimination is called out and properly reported, let’s learn about the types of discrimination that exist, when they become illegal, and how employers can prevent discrimination in the workplace.
What are the types of discrimination in the workplace?
Discrimination becomes illegal when “protected characteristics,” such as your race, gender, religion, pregnancy status, disability, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity are involved. Here are examples of a few of the most common types of discrimination in the workplace and the laws that protect employees.
The EEOC defines age discrimination as an employee being treated less favorably because of their age. Age discrimination can happen to both younger and older workers, but only discrimination against people over the age of 40 is illegal under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). All aspects of employment are covered, including hiring, pay, promotions, training, and firing.
Career change coach Lisa Lewis Miller says the difference between ageism and age discrimination is that age discrimination is typically a single isolated act based in bias, while ageism is the set of underlying stereotypes that drive discriminatory behaviors.
Examples of illegal age discrimination are:
Older, more qualified applicants being passed over for promotions without reasoning
Older employees being fired once they reach a certain age, regardless of experience
A company forcing an older employee to take an early retirement
Hiring managers including age preferences, specifications, or limitations in job postings
Gender discrimination comes in many forms, but it generally means that someone is treated differently because of their gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Gender discrimination also includes everything beneath the sexual harassment umbrella, such as unwelcome sexual advances and verbal or physical harassment, as well as pregnancy discrimination.
Despite there being laws in place to protect employees, 42 percent of working women in the U.S. have faced gender discrimination in the workplace. For gender discrimination to be illegal, it has to “adversely affect your terms of conditions of employment.” These terms and conditions include things such as your job responsibilities, work hours, dress code, salary, performance evaluation standards, job location, and promotion or training opportunities.
Examples of illegal gender discrimination include:
Experiencing unwelcome sexual advances
Being called derogatory names relating to your gender identity or sexual orientation
A man being paid double a woman’s salary for the exact same type of work
A hiring manager failing to ask a woman job candidate about her qualifications, but instead whether she thinks her kids will get in the way of doing her job (discover more illegal interview questions here)
A woman being skipped over for a promotion that she’d been promised because she becomes pregnant
Racial discrimination is one of the most common types of discrimination in the workplace and can take the form of harassing, or refusing to hire, promote, or train a person because of their race, ethnicity, or national origin. While overt racism is done openly and is easily provable, covert and systemic racism is more likely to be overlooked.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, makes it illegal for employers to refuse to hire an employee, pay an employee less or provide fewer benefits, fail to grant promotions or opportunities, and improperly classify or segregate employees or applicants based on race.
Examples of illegal racial discrimination are:
Referring to employees of a certain race in slang terms or code words
Assigning employees of a certain race different job duties or paying them less
Taking adverse action against an employee for their relationship to someone of a certain race
Not hiring employees of a certain race
Unfairly disciplining certain employees on the basis of race
Disability discrimination is any type of unequal or unfair treatment of an employee based on their disability status. Ableism, discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities, happens every day, but often goes unaddressed due to a lack of understanding and education.
Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in applying for jobs, hiring, firing, and job training.
Examples of illegal disability discrimination include:
A company rescinding a job offer after learning of a candidate’s disability
Employees being bullied or harassed in the workplace because of their disabilities
An employer refusing to provide reasonable adjustments to help a disabled team member perform their job duties
Terminating an employee because of disability-related absences
What about retaliation?
If you face punishment, discipline, or retaliation for speaking up about any of these types of harassment, that’s also considered discrimination. Some examples of retaliation could include demotions, benefit limitations, further harassment, poor performance reviews, or termination. The EEOC says that retaliation is the most frequently alleged basis of discrimination in the federal sector.
6 examples of illegal discrimination in the workplace
Rania, an employee of Asian descent, regularly encounters racially motivated microaggressions from her manager, such as jokes about her accent and assumptions about her cultural background. Furthermore, Rania's manager refuses to mentor her because of her race.
Alexandra is pregnant and consistently finds that her male counterparts are promoted to leadership positions, even though she has equal or superior qualifications. Despite her impressive performance, she's consistently overlooked due to her gender and pregnancy, exemplifying gender discrimination.
Among a group of coworkers performing similar roles, it becomes evident that employees from different racial backgrounds receive varying levels of compensation. This unequal pay for comparable work highlights racial pay disparities and discrimination.
Taylor, a transgender employee, is often referred to by their former name by some colleagues and has been called derogatory names relating to their gender identity and sexual orientation. This treatment reflects gendered discrimination.
After Maria, an employee in her late 50s, encountered assumptions that she struggled with technology and resisted change due to her age, she was fired without an explanation. This is an example of age discrimination.
Micah uses a wheelchair at work and consistently faces challenges in accessing her workplace and completing her job duties due to the absence of ramps and elevators. Her requests for reasonable accommodations have been met with resistance and delays. This situation showcases disability discrimination.
6 ways discrimination at work can be avoided
We all have unconscious biases, and although tactics to avoid discrimination won’t eradicate it quickly or maybe even entirely, they’re an easy way for employers to begin to take action in combatting discriminatory practices in the workplace.
1. Write inclusive job descriptions
Job descriptions are one of the first places that discrimination seeps in if you aren’t using inclusive language. When writing a job description, make sure to avoid gendered, racial, ableist, and ageist language. For example, don’t assume the gender of potential hires (“he/she will report to…”) and don’t use phrases like “native English speaker” that could exclude candidates whose first language isn’t English.
2. Use anonymous hiring
Research shows that minority job applicants who “whiten” their resumes by deleting references to their race are twice as likely to be called back for an interview compared to candidates who reveal their race in some way.
To combat this kind of discrimination and unconscious bias, the practice of “anonymous hiring” allows candidates to remove demographic information—gender, ethnicity, race, education level, graduation dates, headshots, and other identifying factors—from their job applications. By removing identifying information, these anonymous applications ensure hiring managers are presented with the most objective information possible.
3. Avoid looking for a “culture fit” in interviews
Sociologist Lauren Rivera’s research shows that hiring professionals often look for similarities in background or hobbies—meaning they value personal chemistry and common ground over actual job skills. This type of “culture fit” interviewing, when hiring managers prioritize hiring people who’ll fit seamlessly into their preexisting culture, can contribute to discrimination in the hiring process.
Hana Elliott, an experienced tech industry leader who helps launch sales careers for entry-level folks from diverse backgrounds, says, “One thing I’ve noticed is the term ‘culture fit’ is too often a mask for blatant discrimination. It’s an excuse for not hiring or promoting people who are otherwise qualified, but make us uncomfortable. It’s the reason many hiring managers give when there isn’t a true reason.”
To avoid this, hiring managers should look for “culture adds.” In other words, hire people who can do the job, but who also bring unique skills and viewpoints that aren’t already represented at the company. Make sure your teams are aligned on interview questions beforehand, and sift through your questions to make sure there aren’t any that could imply bias.
4. Ensure accessibility throughout the workplace
Accessibility means that everyone can easily navigate the workplace. This means not only building in physical accessibility, such as wheelchair ramps, braille signage, and accessible bathrooms, but also creating digital accessibility, where information and communication technology is accessible to all employees, and offering flexible work hours that accommodate employees’ needs for time off or shifted scheduling.
During the interview process, too, employers are legally required to accommodate candidates to ensure there’s an equal opportunity. For example, if you offer a computer exam and there’s a candidate with a disability that prevents them from reading screens clearly, you must provide a screen reader to ensure fairness.
5. Invest in management training
Employers should invest in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training programs for all employees, but especially leaders and managers so they can learn about the types of discrimination, unconscious bias, how to avoid discrimination in the hiring process, and how to properly respond to discrimination claims. Education is key to eliminating discrimination.
For example, security company Expel, Inc works with a specialized human capital consultancy to offer conscious inclusion training and R.I.C.H. (race, identity, culture, and heritage) discussions for employees and managers. Similarly, computer software company Mediaocean requires employees to complete a minimum of three hours of DEI training as soon as they’re hired. The courses teach employees how to recognize, address, and prevent discrimination in their day-to-day lives and in the workplace.
6. Host team-building activities
Team-building exercises are designed to encourage collaboration and build trust among employees, which is especially important for diverse, global teams where cultural gaps can cause lapses in communication, unconscious bias, and even discrimination. Leaders can host team- and culture-building exercises to help eliminate any preconceived notions employees may have about their colleagues.