What is Workplace Discrimination?

Alexis W.

Workplace discrimination occurs when an individual is treated differently when applying for a job, or while at his job, as a result of his protected status. In the United States, workplace discrimination is illegal; this means that a person cannot be treated differently on the basis of certain qualifications, such as race, gender, national origin, color, age, or disability. Various federal and state laws within the United States make discrimination in the workplace illegal.

Workplace discrimination can become a legal issue.
Workplace discrimination can become a legal issue.

Not all types of workplace discrimination are prohibited by law. For example, it is not illegal to discriminate against or treat someone differently on the basis of his being physically unattractive or on the basis of his living in the wrong neighborhood. Discrimination is prohibited by law only on the basis of certain specific traits and qualifications. These qualifications, therefore, are considered to have protected status. That means if someone is a female, she cannot be discriminated against on the basis of being female because her femaleness puts her in a protected class.

Laws protect people with disabilities from workplace discrimination.
Laws protect people with disabilities from workplace discrimination.

Different civil rights laws within the United States prohibit different types of workplace discrimination and create different protected classes. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender or religion. The Americans with Disabilities Act makes it illegal to discriminate against a disabled individual and mandates that employers make reasonable accommodations to allow a disabled person to work. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects workers over the age of 40 from being fired or otherwise treated differently on the basis of their age.

Discrimination is sometimes age-based.
Discrimination is sometimes age-based.

Workplace discrimination under these laws involves a broad category of prohibited behavior. The laws stipulate that an employer cannot discriminate in the hiring, firing or terms and conditions of employment. This means that an employer cannot refuse to hire someone solely on the basis of his age, or other protected classification. He also cannot make firing decisions based on the protected status of an individual. In addition, he cannot promote or refuse to promote someone, provide or limit benefits, or otherwise hinder or help a person in any way at his job on the basis of gender or race or other protected status. It is also illegal for a company to permit a hostile environment to be created; for example, an employer cannot permit someone to be made uncomfortable by racial jokes occurring at the workplace.

It's essential that all employees feel that grievances related to discrimination will be heard fairly and without fear of retribution.
It's essential that all employees feel that grievances related to discrimination will be heard fairly and without fear of retribution.

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Discussion Comments


I am a postal city carrier which have been turned down for transfer year after year. My senator just sent me a letter that stated my postmaster will not allow it because I turned down a transfer about 15 years ago which I turned down because they would not tell me how many hours I would be working. They also turned me down for my sick leave record which was supposed to be workman's comp, but they purposely gave me the wrong forms.

I am a disabled vet and only miss work because of work related stuff like the flu strip throat or a torn rotator cuff. They also refused to file workman's comp on this, as well. Any suggestions?


I have a situation. I don't know if it falls into any of the protected classes, but maybe someone can advise me. I have been working for my current employer (in Pennsylvania) for over three years now. I'm a young (under 25), driven employee. Before I was hired, I was injured in a car accident (non-union fracture of the clavicle) and that limits what I can do without pain. I have never asked for an accommodation or anything, as most times, I can do my job relatively pain free.

The condition is deteriorating and as a result, I'm not able to do my job as well. So, I went to a specialist to see about, and schedule surgery if I'm a candidate. (I am and the surgery has been scheduled) The day my surgery was scheduled, I informed my boss, who then informed his boss, who I'm assuming, informed HR. The issue is that, after the surgery, I'll have to return on modified (light) duty. In an office space (such as the one I work in) this shouldn't be an issue. The only thing I won't be able to do in my regular job description is the filing, because the files are so heavy, the shelves so high, and the files packed onto the shelves so tightly.

The day after I informed my boss of the scheduled surgery, an e-mail was sent out from HR stating that except in cases of work related injury, we are no longer able to return to work on modified duty. This is not posted in any policy or procedure that I could find, none was cited in the e-mail, and it's not in our union agreement. In my case, it means that instead of being off two weeks, I'll have to be off 8-10 weeks (When I have 4.5-5 weeks of paid leave available).

I was even specifically told that if there were another clerical person in my division, that they could work around the restriction by giving that person more of the filing. Since I'm the only clerical person in my division, that's not an option and therefore forces me to decide between having this severe, debilitating injury corrected, or a roof over my head.

I feel that I'm being discriminated against. I was even asked by a co-worker who knows of my condition and surgery if that e-mail (sent out to the entire agency) was directed at me. Help?

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