Workplace Discrimination

What is Workplace Discrimination?

Workplace discrimination is when an employee experiences some adverse action based on a protected characteristic such as race, gender, religion, national origin, physical or mental disability, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity by employers. Discrimination can take many forms, whether it be sexual harassment, pay discrepancies, denied promotions, termination, and many others.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from subjecting employees to and adverse employment action on the basis of protected categories, including race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy and sexual harassment), and national origin.
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Some additional federal laws prohibit discrimination, including:

  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA), which protects men and women who perform substantially equal work in the same establishment from sex-based wage discrimination, requiring equal pay for equal work;
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older;
  • Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended (ADA), which prohibit employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities;
  • Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which prohibits discrimination against members of the military and protects their civilian employment while they are engaged in military service; and
  • Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), which prohibits employment discrimination based on genetic information about an applicant, employee, or former employee.

Discriminatory practices do not just include hiring and firing. Other discriminatory practices include:

  • Harassment. The most common type of harassment is sexual harassment, although harassment is prohibited on the basis of any protected category;
  • Retaliation against an individual for filing a charge of discrimination, participating in an investigation, or opposing discriminatory practices;
  • Employment decisions based on stereotypes or assumptions about the abilities, traits, or performance of individuals of a certain sex, race, age, religion, or ethnic group, or individuals with disabilities, or based on myths or assumptions about an individual’s genetic information; and
  • Denying employment opportunities to a person because of marriage to, or association with, an individual of a particular race, religion, national origin, or an individual with a disability.
  • In addition to the protections provided by Title VII and other federal laws, state laws such as the Illinois Human Rights Act, as well as local ordinances, provide similar protections. However, the Illinois Human Rights Act and other local ordinances also provide protections for individuals against discrimination based upon one’s sexual orientation, gender identity, arrest record, housing status, and more.

Frequently Asked Questions About Discrimination Law

Who is protected from employment discrimination?

Employees are protected from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, and disability. It is also worth noting that sex discrimination encompasses discrimination based on pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

There is a wide range of conduct that can be considered discrimination in the workplace. Generally, evidence of discrimination includes, but is not limited to, suspicious timing of employment actions, ambiguous comments or behavior toward employees in a protected class, and patterns of behavior that show employees who do not belong to a protected class receive systematically better treatment than similarly situated employees that do belong to a protected class.

No. The filing or participation in the filing of a charge or opposition to discrimination is considered protected activity under Title VII. Similarly, participation as a witness for a co-worker’s claim of discrimination under Title VII constitutes protected activity for purposes of a retaliation claim.

There are both federal and state laws that protect employees against sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace. The Illinois Human Rights Act has protected Illinois workers against sexual orientation discrimination since 2005, whereas the United States Supreme Court just affirmed as recently as June 15, 2020 that Title VII protects employees against sexual orientation discrimination.

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