What You Need to Know about Workplace Discrimination

Discrimination is not just against the law. It is also wrong and can cause long-term, irreparable damage to both victims and their workplaces. Unfortunately, workplace discrimination continues to be a major problem in the United States, with hundreds of thousands of reported cases every year. It is important for all employees and employers to understand what workplace discrimination is, what to do if discrimination occurs, and the critical importance of maintaining workplaces free of discrimination.

What is workplace discrimination?

Both federal and state laws protect employees from discrimination on the basis of race, color, ancestry, religion, age, disability, gender, sex, veteran status, and many other factors. In some states, there are additional protected categories: California, for instance, also protects employees from discrimination on the basis of AIDS / HIV status, medical conditions, domestic violence victim status, and gender identity.

Workplace discrimination can include:

Harassment of the employee by their peers or superiors.

  • Illegal interview questions, such as asking about a female employee’s potential plans to have children.
  • Demoting, promoting, paying, or terminating employees based on discriminatory factors.
  • Not making reasonable accommodations, as defined by the law, for employees with physical and mental disabilities.
  • Firing an older employee with higher pay and replacing them with a younger one.
  • Sexual harassment

Unfortunately, workplace discrimination is pervasive. Nationwide, there are hundreds of thousands of cases reported to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) every year. On top of that, the commission believes that up to 94% of all workers who face discrimination or harassment do not report it. In many cases, this is due to:

  • Fear of retaliation: Even though federal and state law protects employees who report discrimination, many still worry about their employer taking negative action against them.
  • Uncertainty about how to proceed: Even in large companies that have human resources departments, the employee may not be sure who they need to speak to in order to file a complaint.

What should you do if you are a victim of discrimination?

Workplace discrimination can happen to any employee, at any time. It is important for all employees to understand their rights and the process for filing a complaint and—potentially—taking legal action against their employer.

  • Understand the law: Unfortunately, many employees may not know that the form of harassment or discrimination they are facing is unlawful. As the adage goes, “knowledge is power.” When employees are informed of their rights, they can take action.
  • Speak up: If your company has a human resources department, follow the correct procedures for filing a complaint. Your company may already have a remedy for dealing with instances of harassment or discrimination. If your complaint is not dealt with, you have at least established a paper trail. Keep careful records of your conversations with your supervisors and HR personnel.
  • Talk to an attorney: Not every workplace discrimination case proceeds immediately to a lawsuit. In many cases, an attorney will first help you submit a written report to the EEOC and its equivalent oversight body in your state. This may be a preliminary step toward taking legal action against an employer.

When discrimination occurs, everyone loses

Ultimately, workplace discrimination hurts both the employee and the employer. Employees who are victims of discrimination may feel ostracized or isolated from their peers or supervisors, directly impacting their work performance. Discrimination may also result in the loss of income, future earnings, and benefits, particularly in scenarios where the employee was passed over for a promotion due to discriminatory practices. Naturally, all of these factors can lead to emotional distress for the employee, as well.

Beyond their legal responsibility to protect the rights of their employees, it is in the best interest of businesses to foster a discrimination-free work environment. There are positive benefits to doing so, including a lower employee turnover rate, greater office productivity, and reduced legal liability.

In short, everyone in the workplace has a responsibility to take a stand against unlawful discrimination. By doing so, both the employees and the employer stand to benefit.

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