Employment discrimination: what you need to know

Here's how you can avoid it happening in your workplace

Employment discrimination: what you need to know

Employment discrimination can happen anytime without employers realizing it unfolding – even with all the news of discrimination happening worldwide. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of companies to know how to spot discrimination in the workplace and what to do to mitigate the situation.

What is employment discrimination?

Employment discrimination happens when an employee or manager treats someone less favorably or unequally based on their personal characteristic or background. This includes sex, race, age, disability, religion, nationality, and sexual orientation. Discrimination can happen to anyone in the workforce and even as early as during the job application process. Common discrimination practices include refusing to hire, biased promotions, harassment, bullying, unjust termination, and unfair workplace treatment.

The primary law protecting employees against discrimination is the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Just as it is illegal to discriminate against someone based on their characteristic, it’s also illegal for companies and managers to retaliate or punish someone who complained about employment discrimination.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws to protect employees and other US workers from workplace discrimination. The EEOC has the right to investigate any discrimination case filed against an employee or company.

Read more: Discrimination still rampant despite D&I efforts

Types of employment discrimination

Employment discrimination can come in different forms, targeting various aspects of a colleague. Becoming aware of the different types can help companies and leaders recognize possible workplace discrimination.

Listed below are some of the common types of employment discrimination:

1. Age discrimination

Age discrimination is when an applicant or employee is judged and mistreated due to their age. According to the EEOC, there have been 14,183 age discrimination cases in the US in 2020. Even though the number of cases has lowered compared to previous years due to the increase of diversity and inclusion in workplaces, there are still many instances that need to be addressed further. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects workers from age discrimination.

Usually, an older employee or job applicant can be stereotyped as a liability to the company or harder to work with. They are seen as being resistant to change or to learn new skills, failing to understand technology, too highly compensated to retain, and being complacent or unmotivated. 

Aside from this, age discrimination can happen for all ages. For example, some younger job applicants experience ageism when they are perceived as inexperienced despite having proficient skills and expertise. 

2. Disability discrimination

Disability discrimination is when an employee or manager treats a co-worker unfairly due to their disability. Disability discrimination also happens when an employee is being mistreated due to having a history of a disability such as major depressive episodes or believed to have a physical or mental disability. In addition, employees who are being discriminated due to having a relationship with a disabled person can be grounds for disability discrimination.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodation for employees and job applicants with a disability as to provide equal and fair opportunities for them to work. The same goes for the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which governs federal employees and applicants.

During the hiring process, employers are generally only allowed to ask disability-related questions or require a medical exam as proof for the employer to accommodate any request made by the employee for their disability or if the employer thinks the employee can’t perform the job properly or safely.

3. National origin discrimination

Discrimination based on nationality is when companies and employers deny equal opportunities for an employee that is from a different country or ethnicity. It can also happen based on someone’s accent or assumed as someone from a diverse ethnic background. Just like disability discrimination, an employee who is associated with someone from a particular national origin or ethnicity could be discriminated in the workplace.

Regarding nationality discrimination, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) governs equal opportunities in hiring, firing, or recruitment for employees. The law prohibits companies from hiring only US citizens unless required to do so by law. The IRCA’s law is enforced by the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s Immigrant and Employee Rights Section (IER).

4. Racial discrimination

Race discrimination focuses on inequality based on a person’s particular race or has physical characteristics associated with a specific race. Prejudice solely based on a co-worker’s skin color or complexion – regardless of their race – is the most common racial discrimination as it quickly judges someone based on their external attributes.

The Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees against racial discrimination and also protects them against retaliation for reporting bias and discrimination in the workplace.

5. Religious discrimination

Discrimination can happen based on an employee’s religion or moral beliefs. Employers are responsible for making reasonable accommodations to cater to different faiths, such as honoring any religious holidays, observances, or practices, unless the accommodation would cause undue hardship on the employer.

The Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees against religious discrimination against the employee themselves or against their relationship with someone belonging to a specific religious group.

6. Sex-based discrimination

Sex discrimination happens when an employee is being treated poorly and unfairly based on their sex. This includes an employee’s gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy.

There are other laws protecting employees from sex-based discrimination aside from the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) protects employees from unjust sex-based wage discrimination between men and women despite equal work and responsibilities. Meanwhile, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act is an amendment to Title VII that prohibits discrimination against pregnancy, childbirth, and a medical condition related to childbirth.

Read more: Are you neglecting these employees at work?

How employers can deal with discrimination in the workplace

Discrimination can significantly affect the workplace environment – causing low productivity, employee engagement, and trust within the organization. Although companies cannot entirely prevent employee discrimination, there are ways employers can prevent and deal with employment discrimination.

When a discrimination complaint has been filed, the best action employers can take is to treat the complaint with respect and not to retaliate. Filing a complaint against a co-worker, no matter the ranking, is a challenging action to take as it can affect work relationships, reputations, and their work. Treating a case with proper seriousness and compassion can show how the company cares for equality, employees’ safety, and workforce wellness. Retaliating against the complainant is illegal and could damage the morale and trust of the workforce with the company.

Having anti-discrimination policies in place could help companies avoid any discrimination in the long run. The policies should be clear on what falls as discrimination and what actions the company will take to prevent miscommunication. It is best to have these policies listed in detail in the employee handbook and employment contracts.

Aside from that, keeping employees and employers alike educated and updated on discrimination in the workplace can help promote equality and ensure that every person in the company is doing their part in preventing workplace discrimination. Sending emails and meetings on policy updates and holding seminars on workplace discrimination are a few simple ways to educate employees on the matter.

Lastly, holding the wrongdoers responsible for workplace discrimination by taking appropriate action should be necessary for companies to fulfill their responsibility in creating a safe and inclusive workplace environment. Companies need to cooperate with government agencies like the EEOC to review and investigate any discrimination cases and decide on the proper punishment for the accused – which could be warnings, counseling, or termination depending on the severity of the discrimination. Once an action has been decided, employers should document it and implement it as soon as possible.

Companies should not be afraid of taking action against discrimination, whether it was formally reported or just an informal complaint by an employee. While it may be challenging to settle any reports in the workplace, dealing with it head-on can help set an example for co-workers and motivate them to do their part when it comes to any discrimination and harassment against their colleagues.

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