What Are the Types of Workplace Discrimination?

And what to do if you have a discrimination claim

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 24, 2023

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

One of the leading employment litigation issues is workplace discrimination, “when an employee feels that they’ve been fired because of their inclusion in a protected class,” says New Jersey employment litigation attorney Lawrence N. Lavigne.  

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.  

One of the most important things you can do is to speak with a lawyer about your situation as soon as possible. There are at least two reasons for this. First, employment law and litigation are complex, and you need an expert to ensure your rights are effectively protected. Second, there are often very short timeframes involved in bringing discrimination claims, and you want to ensure that you meet the deadlines. 

What is Discrimination in the Workplace? 

Discrimination is when someone is treated differently due to a personal characteristic. Both federal and state laws prohibit workplace discrimination based on specific protected characteristics or a person’s inclusion in protected classes. 

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

  • Unfair treatment in employment decisions 
  • Sexual harassment from supervisors or coworkers 
  • Hostile work environment 
  • Refusal to provide reasonable accommodations 
  • Retaliation against employees for complaints or whistleblowing 
  • Improper questions about private matters, such as medical information 

Disparate work environments are a common example of workplace discrimination claims, Lavigne says. “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, “if a member of a minority group is getting the worst job assignments or isn’t getting overtime pay, or if there is any treatment that could be perceived as negative 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” and a type of discrimination. 

Federal Laws That Protect Employees from Discrimination 

Several federal laws protect employees from different forms of discrimination. These legal protections apply to individuals who are members of various protected classes. 

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII is a federal law that applies to employers with fifteen or more employees. It prohibits several types of workplace discrimination: 
    • Race discrimination is treating someone unfavorably because they have characteristics associated with a particular race 
    • Color discrimination is similar to racial discrimination but differs in that it is based specifically on skin color rather than other characteristics 
    • Ethnicity discrimination is treating someone unfairly because of their ethnic background or identity 
    • National origin discrimination is similar but distinct from ethnic discrimination and is based on the fact that a person comes from a particular country 
    • Sex discrimination is treating someone unfairly because of their sex, including the person’s sexual orientation and gender identity 
    • Religious discrimination based on a person’s religious beliefs 
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA protects employees with disabilities 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 employers with 20 or more employees. It prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants and employees who are over 40 years of age. 
  • 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 ADA also applies, prohibiting discrimination based on disabilities resulting from pregnancy. 
  • Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008. This law prohibits employment discrimination based on genetic information, such as information in medical and genetic tests. 

State Anti-Discrimination Laws and Deciding Which Court to Sue In 

In addition to federal laws, the state you live in may also have anti-discrimination laws.  

For example, Lavigne says New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) “happens to be a little more employee-friendly than the federal counterpart in Title VII.” 

LAD and Title VII “mean to do the same thing, which is to protect employees from being discriminated against based on their inclusion in protected classes or their engagement in protected activities such as whistleblowing, but they do it in different ways,” he adds. 

For example, “under New Jersey state law, some remedies are included that aren’t in the federal law, such as compensation for emotional distress” resulting from employment discrimination or termination. Another difference, Lavigne says, is “under state law, the defendant may be required to pay the employee’s legal fees.” 

Of course, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination only protects citizens of New Jersey, “and not every state has good anti-discrimination statutes on the books,” Lavigne says. 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 of which court to sue in can also vary depending on what your claim is. “For example, whistleblower statutes have a different statute of limitations than discrimination statutes,” adds Lavigne.  

Statutes of limitations are laws that set deadlines for when a plaintiff can bring legal action. If you miss the deadline in the law, you are barred from suing or recovering compensation. 

Finally, “some of the statutes have waiver provisions. A waiver provision is relevant if your claims arise from the same transactions. Let’s say you have a discrimination claim and a whistleblower claim [under CEPA, New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act] arising from the same events,” says Lavigne. In that case, “You have to choose between them. While you can file both claims, you can’t collect under both statutes. So, you have to be careful in defining your claim, making 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 recommends that employees get legal representation if they are considering legal action. 

Who Enforces Anti-Discrimination Laws? 

If you have a discrimination claim, what can you do?  

The first thing to do is document your experience by taking notes and gathering any relevant communications with your employer or coworkers. If you choose to take action, you want to have ample evidence backing your claims. 

Once you have collected evidence, you can take the matter to your employer’s human resources department and file a complaint. In bringing a claim to human resources, it’s essential to understand your employer’s anti-discrimination policies and procedures for handling claims.  

Suppose the human resources department does not take action or the discriminatory practices continue. In that case, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

In fact, says Lavigne, “if you’re pursuing a claim under federal anti-discrimination statutes, you must go through the EEOC and exhaust your administrative remedies before you can sue.” 

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

It’s important to note that there is no similar requirement on the state level to exhaust administrative remedies. For example, in New Jersey, “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. 

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.” 

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 also 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. 

Questions for an Employment Litigation Attorney 

Most employment litigation lawyers provide free consultations for potential clients, letting you get legal advice about your claim without incurring initial costs.  

To get the most out of a consultation, ask informed questions such as: 

  • What are your attorney’s fees and billing options? 
  • What is my state’s statute of limitations? 
  • Do I have a discrimination claim under state or federal law? 
  • Can my issue be resolved without filing a lawsuit? 
  • How likely is a settlement in my case? 
  • What sort of remedies can I get if I pursue a lawsuit? 
  • How much is a lawsuit, and how long does it last? 

Once you have met with a lawyer and gotten your questions answered, you can begin an attorney-client relationship. 

Look for an employment litigation attorney in the Super Lawyers directory. 

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