12 Types of Workplace Discrimination | An Employee Guide

12 Types of Workplace Discrimination | An Employee Guide was originally published on Idealist Careers.

Illustration by Marian Blair

In 2017, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that over 80,000 workplace discrimination charges were filed, resulting in a staggering $400 million in compensation for victims. The Commission defines and prohibits 12 types of discrimination that affect any aspect of employment including: hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, and benefits. 

How many of them are you familiar with?

1. Age

The law says: According to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), age discrimination against people aged 40 or older is illegal.

At work: Even if an employment policy or practice seems to apply to people of all ages, if it negatively affects a job applicant or employee aged 40 or older, it is illegal. For example, an employer that has a clear pattern of only hiring younger employees—despite having qualified applicants of all ages—is not in compliance with the law.

2. Disability

The law says: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes disability discrimination illegal. The law also protects a person’s candidacy or employment based on their relationship with someone living with a disability.  

At work: The law limits employers asking a job applicant disability-related questions, requesting a medical exam, or identifying their disability. However, once a job offer has been extended and accepted, it is legal for an employer to make those requests if they are made to all new employees in the same type of job. 

Once an employee has been hired and working, an employer can ask disability-related questions or request a medical exam to support an employee’s request for reasonable accommodation. A medical exam can also be requested if a medical condition is suspected from preventing an employee from “safely or successfully” doing their job. 

3. Compensation

The law says: The Equal Pay Act requires employers to give equal pay for “substantially equal” work, as determined by the responsibilities of a job and not the job title. Pay is defined as salary, overtime pay, bonuses, stock options, profit sharing and bonus plans, life insurance, vacation and holiday pay, cleaning or gasoline allowances, hotel accommodations, reimbursement for travel expenses, and benefits.  

4. Gender & Sexual Orientation

The law says: Discrimination against a person on the basis of gender identity—including transgender status—or sexual orientation is illegal. 

At work: Even if an employment policy or practice applies to all job applicants or employees, if it negatively affects people of a specific gender identity or sexual orientation and isn’t job-related or necessary for business operations, that policy or practice is illegal. For example, if there is a clear pattern of promoting people of one specific gender identity despite there being qualified candidates of other identities, this may well be an instance of discrimination.  

5. Genetic information

The law says: The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 makes it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or employee on the basis of their genetic information. Genetic information is defined as the information regarding the genetic testing of a person or that person’s family members, or a person’s family medical history. 

At work: It is illegal to share the genetic information of job applicants or employees. However, there are two exceptions: if government officials are investigating genetic information discrimination claims, or if a court order requests those disclosures.

6. Harassment

The law says: The EEOC specifically calls out harassment as a form of discrimination that violates three laws—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADEA, and the ADA. Harassment is illegal when “offensive conduct” becomes a part of a person’s continued employment, or when the offensive conduct is considered “intimidating, hostile, or abusive.” Anti-discrimination laws also forbid harassment as retaliation against a person who files, testifies, or participates in the investigation of discrimination charges.  

At work: When it comes to sexual harassment, it is illegal to make uninvited sexual advances, request sexual favors, or any other verbal or physical harassment “of a sexual nature.” The “harasser” can be anyone in the workplace—a supervisor, co-worker, client or customer, or even someone who isn’t an employee.  

7. National origin

The law says: The law prohibits unfair treatment against a job applicant or employee because they are from a specific country, have an accent, are of a specific ethnicity, appear to be of a specific background, or are married or associated to a person from a specific national origin. 

At work: If an employment policy or practice applies to all employees, but negatively affects people of a specific national origin, it is illegal—as long as the policy or practice isn’t job-related or necessary for business operations.

8. Parental status

The law says: According to an executive order signed in 2000, it is prohibited to discriminate against a parent, irrespective of whether a person is a biological, adoptive, or foster parent. However, parental status discrimination isn’t actually covered when it comes to discrimination law. 

At work: A loophole that applies in the office is if a person is discriminated against because of their status as a caregiver—this may actually fall under the purveyance of gender discrimination. 

9. Pregnancy

The law says: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits negative treatment of a job applicant or employee because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to either pregnancy or childbirth. 

At work: The Family and Medical Leave Act grants an employee 12 weeks of leave during pregnancy or after childbirth. Also, after childbirth, a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act gives new mothers “reasonable break time” to express milk at work.  

10. Race & Color

The law says: Race discrimination is unfair treatment of a job applicant or employee because of their race or because of characteristics linked to their race (e.g. facial features, hair texture). This differs from color discrimination, which is unfair treatment of a job applicant or employee because of the color of their complexion. 

At work: An employment policy or practice that applies to everyone is illegal if it negatively affects people of a specific race or color, or isn’t job-related or necessary for business operations. 

11. Religion

The law says: Unfair treatment of a job applicant or employee because of their religious beliefs is illegal.  

At work: The law requires employers to make “reasonable accommodation” for an employee’s religious beliefs and practices, unless doing so is more than a “minimal burden” for the employer. An employee also cannot be coerced into participating or not participating in a religious activity as a condition of their employment.  

12. Retaliation

The law says: Equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws expressly prohibit retaliation, which is the most common discrimination type in federal employment cases. 

At work: Retaliation against an employee for filing a complaint an EEO complaint, communicating with a manager about employment discrimination or harassment, and requesting reasonable accommodation are all expressly illegal.

What next?

If you believe you have been subject to discrimination by your employer—or a potential employer—here is what should do next:

  • Document your experience. Make sure to write down what happened to you that details who was involved, what they did, when and where it happened, and what your reaction was. Because details will be clearest to you soon after your experience, it is important to get it down on paper as soon as possible. 
  • Review your employer’s antidiscrimination policy. This is important for you to be informed and to set expectations. 
  • Contact HR. Let your human resources department know that you are being discriminated against or harassed, and share a copy of your notes.
  • Ask HR for a copy of any plans and resulting reports they make to address the situation. This not only holds an employer accountable, but it also ensures you know what to expect.
  • Contact the EEOC. If the discrimination continues or your employer doesn’t take action, it may be time to file a complaint with the EEOC
  • Get a legal consultation. Depending on the severity of the discrimination you experience, you may also want to seek the advice of a lawyer so you know what your options are. 


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