What Are the Types of Workplace Discrimination?

And the four steps to take if you have a discrimination claim

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on October 2, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Lawrence N. Lavigne

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State and federal anti-discrimination laws protect individuals from discriminatory practices in various settings, including the workplace.

A workplace discrimination claim arises “when an employee feels that they’ve been fired [or had another adverse employment action taken against them] because of their inclusion in a protected class,” says Lawrence N. Lavigne, an employment litigation attorney in Union, New Jersey.

This article will introduce the laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace and the steps you can take if you believe you have been discriminated against.

What is Discrimination in the Workplace?

Discrimination is when someone is treated unfavorably due to some personal characteristic that places them in a protected class. Protected characteristics include race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, and national origin.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), types of discrimination in the context of employment include:

  • Unfair treatment in employment decisions, including hiring, job performance evaluation, and termination;
  • Sexual harassment or a hostile work environment involving supervisors or coworkers;
  • Refusal to provide reasonable accommodations for a person’s disability or religious beliefs
  • Retaliation against employees for internal complaints or whistleblowing;
  • Improper questions about private matters, such as one’s medical information.

Lavigne gives disparate work environments as a common example of workplace discrimination claims. “If a female employee thinks she’s getting paid less than a male employee with similar qualifications and responsibilities, that may be a disparate work environment claim.”

Similarly, he says that “if a member of a minority group is getting the worst job assignments or isn’t getting overtime pay—or if there is any negative treatment relating to the fact that the person is a member of a minority group and isn’t being treated the same as people who aren’t members of that group—it’s a disparate work environment.”

The determination of which court to sue in and which statute to use becomes very important… You have to be careful in defining your claim and make sure you take your best shot at winning a lawsuit and getting compensation. What you need to prove and how you go about proving it differs from statute to statute and claim to claim.

Lawrence N. Lavigne

Federal Laws That Protect Employees from Discrimination

Several federal laws protect employees from different forms of discrimination:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII is a federal law that applies to employers with 15 or more employees. It prohibits several types of workplace discrimination:

  • Race discrimination
  • Color discrimination
  • Ethnicity discrimination
  • National origin discrimination
  • Sex discrimination (including a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy status)
  • Religious discrimination

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA protects employees from disability discrimination and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations. Like Title VII, it applies to private employers with 15 or more employees.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)

The ADEA law applies to private employers with 20 or more employees as well as federal, state, and local governments. It prohibits employers from discriminating against job applicants or employees who are 40 years of age or older.

Equal Pay Act

A 1963 amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act, this law prohibits wage discrimination based on the employee’s sex.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act

This act is an amendment to Title VII. It prohibits discrimination based on past, current, or potential pregnancy, as well as medical conditions related to pregnancy, using birth control, or choosing to have or not have an abortion.

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008

This law prohibits employment discrimination based on genetic information, such as information in medical and genetic tests.

Some States Have Anti-Discrimination Laws That Are Stronger Than Federal Law

Depending on where you live, state anti-discrimination laws may provide protections beyond the baseline of federal law.

For example, Lavigne says that New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination “happens to be a little more employee-friendly than the federal counterpart in Title VII. While both laws intend to do the same thing, which is to protect employees from discrimination based on their inclusion in a protected class or their engagement in protected activities, they do it in different ways.” For example, under state law:

  • Some remedies are included that aren’t in federal law, such as compensation for emotional distress;
  • The employer may be required to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees.

Of course, “New Jersey’s anti-discrimination law only protects citizens of the state of New Jersey, and not every state has good anti-discrimination statutes on the books,” says Lavigne. In some states, your only recourse is federal law.

Deciding Whether To Sue Under State or Federal Law

Because of the variation between state and federal anti-discrimination laws, “the determination of which court to sue in and which statute to use becomes very important.”

The choice will also vary depending on what your specific claim is, says Lavigne. “For example, whistleblower statutes have a different statute of limitations than discrimination statutes. And some statutes have waiver provisions, meaning that if your claims arise from the same transactions, you have to choose between them. In other words, while you can file both claims, you can’t collect damages under both statutes.”

The upshot, says Lavigne, is that “you have to be careful in defining your claim and make sure you take your best shot at winning a lawsuit and getting compensation. What you need to prove and how you go about proving it differs from statute to statute and claim to claim.”

Given the complexity of employment laws and litigation, Lavigne strongly recommends that employees get legal representation if they are considering legal action.

What To Do if You Suspect Workplace Discrimination

If your employer is discriminating against you, what can you do?

1. Gather Evidence Supporting Your Claims

The first thing to do is document your experience by taking notes or compiling a record of incidents involving your supervisor or coworkers. If you choose to take legal action, you want to have ample evidence backing your claims.

2. Report to Human Resources

Take the matter to your human resources department and file a complaint in accordance with their policies and procedures.

By giving your employer an opportunity to address the issue, you may be able to resolve the problem early on. Alternatively, if you give your employer an opportunity to address the issue and they fail to take it seriously, having a record of that will bolster your claims down the road.

3. File a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC

You can file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the government agency that enforces federal anti-discrimination laws. The EEOC will investigate, and if they find that workplace discrimination has occurred, issue a Notice of Right to Sue. In fact, says Lavigne, “if you plan to pursue a discrimination lawsuit under federal statutes, you must go through the EEOC and exhaust your administrative remedies before you can sue.”

He warns that filing a complaint with the EEOC “involves very strict timeframes… so it becomes imperative that you reach out to a lawyer the minute you think something wrong is happening.”

State Procedures Differ

It’s important to note that if you plan to file a claim under state law, you may not have an administrative exhaustion requirement as under federal law.

“We don’t have a requirement in our Law Against Discrimination that you must go through administrative procedures with the state civil rights agency before you can bring a lawsuit,” says Lavigne of New Jersey. However, “in the federal system, it’s a predicate that you have to go through the EEOC and get a right to sue letter before you can file a lawsuit in the federal court.”

4. File a Discrimination Lawsuit Against Your Employer

Once you have exhausted your administrative remedies with the EEOC (if you’re going through federal court) or have tried to internally resolve the issue with your employer, you can file a lawsuit against the employer for discrimination.

If you choose to sue, it’s essential to speak with an experienced employment litigation attorney about your case.

Find an Experienced Employment Litigation Attorney

If you are a job applicant or employee and suspect that your employer has discriminated against you, or you need clarity on whether you have a claim, don’t hesitate to reach out to an employment discrimination law attorney for legal advice.

To do so, search the Super Lawyers’ directory of employment litigation attorneys in your area. For more information about this legal area, see our overview of discrimination law and related content.

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