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The Types of Discrimination at Work & How to Avoid it

In the workplace, you’re bound to meet people with ideas and values that diverge from your own. Many employers work hard to create diverse teams, as it enhances creativity, improves decision-making, increases profitability, and amplifies engagement. There’s no question that a diverse staff improves company culture, increases retention, and promotes growth; however, diversity can come with serious downsides when employees clash with a coworker’s personal values and beliefs.

Employees and managers may exhibit prejudice through off-hand comments that single someone out for their personal beliefs, physical appearance, sexual orientation, or other private matters. In the workplace, this is known as “discrimination”, and this is not permitted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

What is Discrimination?

According to the EEOC, to “discriminate” against someone means to treat that person differently, or less favorably. Discrimination can occur at school, at work, or in a public place, such as a mall or subway station. You can be discriminated against by friends, teachers, coaches, co-workers, managers, or business owners.

There are many different types of discrimination, and they include:

  • Race discrimination
  • National origin discrimination
  • Sex and gender discrimination
  • Religious discrimination
  • Retaliation discrimination
  • Age discrimination
  • Disability discrimination
  • Sexual harassment discrimination

The EEOC does not allow employers to alter an employee’s workplace circumstances for discriminatory reasons. This means that employers may not hire an employee, fire an employee, cut an employee’s pay, change an employee’s job assignment, give or deny a promotion, lay off an employee, train an employee differently, or change an employee’s benefits due to discriminatory reasons. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee because she is pregnant, which is gender discrimination. Additionally, an employer cannot fire an employee because their religious values don’t match the employer’s own values. No matter the employer’s viewpoints, he or she may not discriminate against an employee in the workplace.

Harassment Based on Discrimination

Harassment is not welcome in the workplace, as it violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The EEOC defines harassment as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history).” The harasser can be a supervisor, manager, employer, colleague, or someone else in the workplace.  One-time offenses or off-hand comments are typically overlooked if it’s not incredibly serious; however, frequent harassment is illegal when it gets to the point where the work environment becomes offensive or uncomfortable. It is also unlawful if the discrimination affects the victim’s employment status. Examples of harassment include inappropriate comments about someone’s looks, derogatory remarks, or the display of offensive symbols.

The Types of Discrimination

Race and Color

Discriminating against someone based on their race involves treating someone badly because of their skin color, hair texture, or facial features. Those married to someone of a specific race may also face race and color discrimination.

National Origin

If someone is discriminated against based on their country of origin, this means that the person is treated unfairly based on where they were born, their accent, or because of their ethnicity. An employer, however, can require their employees to speak English while they work. Employers can base an employment decision on an employee’s accent if their accent affects their job performance.

According to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, employers are not permitted to discriminate against employees based on their citizenship or immigration status. You may read more about citizen discrimination laws here.

Sex and Gender

On January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order preventing discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Biden states that “Every person should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear, no matter who they are or whom they love.” This executive order prohibits any establishment from allowing harassment.

Sex and gender-based discrimination involves treating someone differently based on that person’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy. It’s unlawful to make sexual advances, request sexual favors, or verbally/physically harass someone in a sexual manner. Additionally, a person may not make offensive remarks about someone’s sex or gender and cannot make remarks regarding someone’s pregnancy as it relates to their employment. 


Religious discrimination can happen when someone is treated unfairly due to their religious beliefs. The law protects people of all religions, which includes Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and many others. This type of harassment may include offensive comments about someone’s beliefs or practices. 

Under Title VII, an employer may not segregate employees based on their religion. For example, an employer cannot prohibit an employee from engaging with customers because they’re worried that the customer may not agree with the employee’s personal religious practices.

Additionally, employees are permitted to wear religious clothing and accessories, as long as it doesn’t cause hardship to other employees and doesn’t affect the employee’s ability to work. Along with that, employers are also allowed to give employees certain time off accommodations for religious holidays. However, an employer does not have to accommodate an employee’s beliefs if it will cause hardship in the workplace, if it impacts employee safety, if their beliefs decrease work efficiency, or if it creates a hazardous work environment. Other than that, employees can practice as they please.


Retaliation is the most common type of discrimination in the workplace. In fact, about 40% of discrimination cases filed are based on retaliation. When an employee lodges a discrimination complaint or is undergoing a discrimination proceeding, a manager cannot fire, harass, demote, or pursue any other form of retaliation against that employee. This also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any investigation.

If an employee files a discrimination complaint, a manager cannot:

  • Verbally abuse or threaten the employee
  • Threaten to make reports to authorities
  • Engage in physical abuse
  • Reprimand the employee
  • Give the employee a bad performance review
  • Make the person’s work more difficult
  • Spread false rumors about the employee


Age discrimination is when an employee is treated differently in the workplace or during the hiring process due to their age. You also may not create a company policy that negatively impacts employees who are 40 years of age or older. On a federal level, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act discourages employers from discriminating against people who are 40 years old or older. Federal law does not protect younger individuals from age discrimination; however, some states have their own laws that protect workers younger than 40.


Discrimination based on disability happens when an employer or entity treats an employee or applicant unfavorably because of a current or past disability. This can be a physical or mental disability such as depression, a broken leg, a major surgery, or other condition. Additionally, disability discrimination can also occur when an employer treats someone covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act unfavorably.

If an applicant or an employee has a disability, employers must provide accommodations for that employee, as long as it doesn’t cause the employer undue hardship. For example, an employer may provide an interpreter for a deaf employee; however, an employer doesn’t have to make accommodations if it’s too difficult or too expensive. 

Lastly, it is unlawful for an employer to provide an applicant with a medical exam or ask them for medically sensitive information on the initial application. However, employers can require employees to take medical exams after extending a job offer. All employees must take these required medical exams, which means an employer can’t give the exam only to a select few. Although they aren’t able to ask employees about their medical information during the interview process, employers are allowed to ask applicants if they can perform their job-related tasks without issues. For example, an employer may ask an applicant if they are able to lift boxes that weigh up to 60 lbs. and may deny them employment if they cannot fulfill this task. You can read more about disability-related laws here.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment occurs when an applicant or employee is treated differently because of their sex or gender. Harassment doesn’t necessarily have to be sexual in nature– an offensive remark about someone’s sex or gender is also sexual harassment. Most states require organizations to undergo sexual harassment training in order to avoid workplace offenses. For example, California requires employers to provide sexual harassment training while Indiana does not require sexual harassment training. Overall, it’s best to speak with your local labor board about your state’s current sexual harassment training requirements to stay updated.  

How to Prevent Discrimination in the Workplace

In order to prevent workplace discrimination, employers and managers must protect employees and create an environment in which employees feel comfortable, regardless of who they are and what they believe. Managers and employees alike must speak professionally at work and should avoid rude comments about other employees. If managers or employees speak in an inappropriate way often, this can become the customary way to speak at work and can become a part of your company culture. If your company culture is full of hateful language, there’s a high chance that employees won’t want to stay. Overall, it’s best to treat others the way you want to be treated and stop prejudiced behavior as soon as you see it happen.

If someone regularly makes derogatory remarks to another employee, the victim has the right to take legal action and file a complaint with the EEOC within a certain timeframe. If they take legal action, you might find yourself with hefty legal and court fees; so it’s best to avoid discrimination from the start.

Here’s how you can avoid discrimination and harassment and prevent it from escalating:


One easy way to prevent discrimination and harassment is to train employees regarding the different types of discrimination and harassment. Training solidifies which comments are acceptable and which ones are less favorable in the workplace. Luckily, training typically has hands-on activities so employees can get a solid grasp of what discriminatory and harassing comments sound like. With this knowledge, they’ll be less likely to repeat that negative behavior.

Creating Anti-Discriminatory Policies 

All employers should create a workplace policy that outlines anti-discrimination and harassment rules. You should define discrimination and harassment, the different types of harassment, and you may also want to provide examples that make things clear to everyone. Employees should also be aware that there are repercussions for discriminatory acts. Publish your policy in your employee handbook and ensure that all current and new employees know about it.

You may also consider creating a complaint protocol for employees who are experiencing discrimination. To make this a simple process, you may want to create a form that they can fill out with their necessary details. You may also want to tell them who they can report to if they find themselves facing discrimination. From there, you can handle this in a timely manner.

Stay in the Loop

To prevent discrimination, you must actively listen to employees and create an open work environment. You may want to stay proactive by ensuring that you educate employees about diversity. Also, please be open to employees who fall victim to harassment and discrimination. Lend an open ear so employees feel comfortable coming to their superiors with any issues they may have. If you are approachable and work towards diversity education, it’s less likely that harassment will make an appearance in your workplace.

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  1. Tina O’Hara
    Tina O’Hara June 19, 2021

    Thank you for taking the time to put this thoughtful article together! So many of us don’t even notice the very subtle discriminatory acts against our coworkers and each other in the workplace. It’s really very sad.
    I’m so proud of you for breaking it down a d can’t wait to hear more from you!

    • Lindsay Sommers
      Lindsay Sommers June 21, 2021

      Thank you for reading, Tina!

  2. Mariana
    Mariana August 15, 2021

    This is important. 🙂

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