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What Is Discrimination in The Workplace

Employee discrimination claims can have significant consequences to employers. Employees may have legal claims against employers who illegally discriminate against them. Employers are required to investigate claims of illegal discrimination. This duty exists even if the employee does not make a formal complaint and even if the employee does not use the word "discrimination" in their complaint. Understanding different types of discrimination and prohibited contact can help employers avoid potential liability. 

Prohibited Forms of Discrimination

A number of federal laws prohibit various types of discrimination. These include discrimination on the basis of an applicant's or employee's:

  • Age - if 40 or older

  • Disability

  • Genetic information

  • Pregnancy

  • Sex 

  • Race

  • Color

  • National origin

  • Religion

Many of these laws have a specified minimum number of employees for the law to apply. 

Additionally, retaliation is a prohibited form of employee discrimination. If an employee makes an allegation against one of the types of discrimination listed above that the employer or a court determines is unfounded, he or she may still face liability if the employer takes adverse action against the employee or applicant for lodging the discrimination complaint. 

State laws may prohibit other types of discrimination, such as discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, other age categories, height or weight. Additionally, state laws may be more likely to impact small employers when the employer does not meet the minimum employee standard used under the federal law. 

Adverse Employment Action

Employee discrimination occurs when the employer makes an adverse employment action against the applicant or employee. This may include any of the following conduct:

  • Refuses to hire an applicant

  • Allows harassment in the workplace

  • Fires an employee

  • Demotes the employee

  • Fails to promote the employee

  • Changes the job assignment of the employee

  • Lowers the pay of the employee

  • Other action that affects the terms and conditions of employment

When this adverse employment action is motivated by one or more of the protected characteristics, the employee may make allegations of employment discrimination, and the employer will be tasked with proving these allegations are false. Obviously, this is easier to respond to formal discrimination allegations if the employer proper adhered to their obligation to conduct a prompt, neutral, and unbiased investigation of the concerns.

Cite this article: Lynch, N. (2017). What Is Discrimination in the Workplace. Available: