The year is 1970 – the Equal Pay Act (EPA) has just come into action, there’s a dramatic number of strikes, and a group of African American employees are suing their employer in what will become a groundbreaking case for racial discrimination.
The company in question, Duke Power’s Dan River Steam Station, was notoriously known for its racist work practices, despite the 1964 Civil Rights Act that explicitly protected workers’ rights. Since the employer couldn’t openly discriminate against people of color, they set up work policies that purposely disqualified African American employees and held them back from promotions.
On March 8, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor, making Griggs v. Duke Power Co. one of the first cases of its kind, setting the foundations for the upcoming fight against employment discrimination.
Fast forward several decades, it’s 2022, and former Glow Networks employees have won a 70-million-dollar lawsuit on racial discrimination after proving they were subjected to demotion, unequal wages, and a hostile environment.
Although this isn’t the most extensive employee pay-out, the Yarbrough et al. v. Glow Networks verdict is an excellent example of how far we’ve come regarding workers’ rights and the importance of legal resources against unlawful behavior at work.
Unfortunately, employment discrimination is still prevalent in the modern workplace, with ongoing cases demonstrating that inequality and bias remain severe societal issues.
So, let’s start from the very beginning and explore why and how this happens and what we can do to subside discrimination in the workplace.
What is Employment Discrimination?
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), to “discriminate” against someone means treating them differently and less favorably.
In that manner, employment discrimination refers to the unfair and unequal treatment of an individual or a group of employees because of specific characteristics, ranging from race and national origin to gender identity and sexual orientation.
At its core, it arises from prejudice, biases, and stereotypes deeply ingrained within our society.
In the workplace, discrimination translates into anything from hiring and firing bias to unequal opportunities for promotion, compensation, and working conditions. As such, it can have grave consequences for those affected, harming their economic, social, and mental wellbeing.
Since laws and regulations safeguard said characteristics, treating employees differently because of them is morally wrong and illegal in many countries.
How Does Discrimination Affect the Workplace?
Between 2015 and 2020, U.S. businesses lost $171.9 billion in turnover due to unfair employee treatment, show findings from the 2021 report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
The research further indicates that the emotional response triggered by discrimination causes employees to:
- Put forth less effort – 45%
- Take longer to complete tasks – 35%
- Spend worktime on non-work activities – 28%
- Take longer breaks – 25%
- Arrive later or leave earlier from work – 21%
- Take items from work without approval or waste materials – 7%
Moreover, research by Gallup shows that, although its individualistic, workplace discrimination is more pervasive among Black and Hispanic workers than Whites and Asians.
As a result, this affects the workplace by changing employees’ ability to do their best work, as well as their perception of:
- The company’s culture
- Job opportunities
- Intentions of their colleagues
- Phycological safety and belonging
Ultimately, any discrimination creates a disengaged workforce, affecting job productivity and retention.
Types of Discrimination in the Workplace
Despite continuous efforts to prevent it, discrimination in the workplace remains an unfortunate reality for many individuals, hindering their professional growth and wellbeing.
“As an immigrant from India here in the U.S., I have unfortunately witnessed discrimination faced by different minority groups in the workplace. This includes gender, race, religion, and even sexual orientation,” reflects Besty S. Jacob, Optometrist at True Eye Experts.
What Jacob mentions is only a portion of the conscious or unconscious biases at work, which further expand to everything from age to disabilities and genetic information.
Age discrimination refers to treating individuals unfavorably based on their age, which affects employees both young and old.
Currently, the labor force consists of five different generations:
- Silent Generation – 2%
- Baby Boomers – 25%
- Generation X – 33%
- Millennials – 35%
- Generation Z – 5%
In such multigenerational environments, stereotyping is a standard affair.
For example, older workers may face challenges related to limited advancement opportunities or forced retirement. Conversely, younger employees may encounter prejudice due to perceived inexperience or lack of skills.
Intergenerational diversity should be considered an advantage rather than a ground for discrimination since each age group provides different values that can improve the workplace.
Individuals mistreated based on race or ethnicity suffer from biased hiring practices, unequal pay, and discriminatory promotion treatment.
In fact, statistics show that the median income of the African American population is the lowest, at $30,555, compared to:
- White – $67,865
- Hispanic – $46,882
- American Indian – $39,719
Moreover, they also experience the highest unemployment rates and receive a lower median hourly wage than Whites and Asians.
Statistics show that, for every 100 men that get promoted, only 87 women receive the same advancement opportunity. Between this and the wage gap, historically, gender discrimination has been much more prevalent for women. They have faced and are still experiencing unequal treatment in terms of hiring, promotion, pay, and overall working conditions.
According to the World Bank’s 2022 report, Women, Business, and the Law, 2.4 billion women of working age globally don’t have equal economic opportunities.
However, societal progress and legal reforms have paved the way for greater gender equality, although disparities persist.
Organizations are now more focused on fostering gender diversity, implementing policies to empower women, supporting work-life balance, and closing the gender pay gap.
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Religious discrimination refers to treating employees unfavorably based on their beliefs or practices.
This bias can manifest in various ways, including denying religious accommodations, making derogatory comments, or subjecting individuals to harassment.
Employers should promote religious tolerance and accommodate employees’ religious practices within reasonable bounds.
In 1978, the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act was put in place to protect women from discrimination due to pregnancy, childbirth, abortion, and other pregnancy-related medical conditions.
However, to this day, being a woman in the workforce is not easy.
Navigating between career and family planning can be challenging to say the least, even more so considering that maternity leave in the U.S. can be as short as four weeks or that women are still considered the primary caregivers.
Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity
Discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity affects individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and others).
Despite recent advances in LGBTQ+ rights, individuals still face prejudice, including biased hiring decisions, harassment, and exclusion.
According to the LGBT People’s Experiences of Workplace Discrimination and Harassment report, almost half of LGBTQ+ employees reported experiencing unfair treatment at some point in their careers.
Mistreating someone because of a disability, visible or invisible, is against the law, and there are legal frameworks that aim to protect the rights of these individuals and promote inclusivity.
In terms of the workplace, this encompasses issues such as inaccessible workplaces, unequal opportunities, and failure to provide reasonable accommodations.
Equal Pay/Compensation Discrimination
Equal pay discrimination occurs when employees are compensated differently for similar work based on their gender, race, or other protected characteristics in the work environment.
The wage gap is a pressing matter, considering that women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man makes.
Statistics further show that female executives earn even less than their male counterparts, and the pay gap is higher for women of color.
Despite legislation like the EPA, wage disparities persist across industries and demographics. Efforts to achieve pay equity involve proactive measures, transparent pay practices, and addressing systemic biases.
Genetic Information Discrimination
According to EEOC, genetic information discrimination refers to unfair treatment of a person because of their genetic characteristics and family medical history—for example, an increased risk of developing a disease, disorder, or medical condition.
This discrimination can occur during employment but also affects promotions, assignments, training, fringe benefits, and more.
Most types of discrimination in the workplace are linked to particular biases and stereotypes. However, harassment, which the EEOC defines as “unwelcome conduct,” is much broader and can happen due to one or more of the abovementioned causes, including color, religion, gender, age, disability, or genetic information.
It usually comes in verbal, physical, and visual form, and it becomes unlawful when the offensive conduct is continuous and severe enough to create an intimidating, abusive, or hostile workplace.
National origin discrimination occurs when employees are mistreated based on their country of origin, accent, or ethnicity.
“Interacting with many foreigners due to the nature of my job and having diverse teams work with me, I have unfortunately seen workplace discrimination on multiple occasions,” admits Balaram Thapa, Director and Travel Advisor at Nepal Hiking Team.
He recalls a story of when one of his guides received unfair treatment from a traveler demanding a new guide of different ethnicity to feel more comfortable.
“My team and I did not allow this to happen, as we stand firm against all forms of discrimination.
We also have instances like accent discrimination. Foreigners made fun of the local guides and staff for their accents, even if they spoke English fluently. It’s really sad to see how these people are treated just because of their race, color, or accent.
These experiences have only strengthened my commitment to fighting all forms of workplace discrimination and creating a safe and respectful environment for everyone at the Nepal Hiking Team.
I strive to ensure that each person’s diverse background is an asset instead of a liability in our company.”
Finally, retaliation refers to adverse actions against employees who engage in protected activities, such as reporting discrimination or participating in investigations.
Workers must feel secure when exercising their rights without fear of retaliation.
To ensure that, organizations should establish clear policies prohibiting this type of discrimination and foster a culture of well-being and accountability.
Laws Against Discrimination in the Workplace
Only a few decades ago, employment discrimination was a standard “addition” to the workplace. Employers could fire someone for being of different ethnicity, harass women, or use racial slurs without facing any consequences.
It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that this power dynamic started to shift toward the employee.
This inspired the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and numerous other organizations and laws. Nowadays, many legal tools exist to protect employees from discrimination in the workplace, including:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: This federal law makes employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin unlawful. It also prohibits retaliation and policies that seem neutral but have the effect of discriminating against individuals or a group of people.
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA): Introduced in 1967, ADEA protects workers from discrimination based on age.
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): The ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in all areas of employment and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities. Moreover, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) further broadened the definition of “disability” under the ADA to provide greater workplace protection to individuals with a wide range of impairments.
- Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA): It prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.
- Equal Pay Act of 1963: The EPA mandates that men and women be given equal pay for equal work performed under similar conditions. It applies to virtually all business owners and covers all types of compensation, including wages, overtime payment, insurance, vacation and holiday pay, travel expenses, benefits, and more.
- Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA): Signed into law in 2008, GINA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants based on their genetic information.
Apart from laws and regulations, several organizations are at the forefront of employee protection. The three most important are:
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: EEOC was established in 1965 as a branch of the federal government. Its task is to investigate charges and enforce the laws that protect employees from workplace discrimination.
- Office of Civil Rights (OCR): This organization enforces civil rights and religious freedom laws to promote equal opportunity for everyone.
- State Labor Office: Every U.S. state has its own Department of Labor that safeguards employee rights.
The Most Impactful Employment Law Cases
To this day, Griggs v. Duke Power Co. is one of the most compelling cases that paved the way to better employee treatment. However, since then, many other impactful employment law cases have left a mark on employee rights. Some of those include:
- Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), Gender Discrimination
In 1989, Ann Hopkins, an employee at the accounting firm Price Waterhouse, sued her employer for refusing her a promotion in a clear case of gender stereotyping. The firm admitted that although Hopkins was qualified, they denied her partnership because she wasn’t wearing enough makeup and jewelery and on account of not moving or speaking more femininely.
- Abdallah v Coca-Cola (1995), Racial Discrimination
Suing a corporate giant like Coca-Cola is not an easy task.
However, Motisola Malikha Abdallah and a group of other black employees had the law on their side when they sued the company in 1995. Ultimately, in a $192 million settlement, the group proved that Coca-Cola discriminated against African Americans by paying them almost a third less than their white co-workers.
After the verdict, the company made substantial changes to its personnel policies to prevent this from happening again.
- Perkl v Chuck E Cheese (1999), Disability Discrimination
Donald Perkl was an employee at Chuck E Cheese diagnosed with nonverbal autism who communicated with picture cards.
In 1999, after District Manager Donald Creasy saw Perkl during a visit to the restaurant, he ordered a supervisor to fire him. He explained that the company didn’t employ “those kinds of people.”
Expectedly, since this action breached the Americans with Disabilities Act, Chuck E Cheese had to pay more than $13 million in damages.
- EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores (2015), Inc., Religious Discrimination
In 2015, the EEOC, on behalf of Samantha Elauf, a Muslim-American woman, sued Abercrombie & Fitch Stores for religious discrimination. The then-17-year-old Elauf wore a religious garment when she applied for a job at one of the stores.
Despite impressing the interviewer, she was denied a job because of her headscarf since the company’s “look policy” prohibited wearing hats.
- Jolly v the NHS (2017), Age Discrimination
In 2017, 86-year-old Eileen Jolly, a secretary at the Royal Berkshire NHS Trust, became one of the oldest complainants in the U.K.
After a mishap at work due to improper training, Jolly was fired. However, her employers claimed it was because of her “old secretary ways.” After taking a stand for herself, Jolly proved to the court that the remarks by her former employer were discriminatory and that she wasn’t at fault.
At 89 years old, Eileen received a settlement of $272,200.
- Glasson v Google (2021), Pregnancy Discrimination
Despite their anti-discrimination and equal opportunity policies, even Google is not impervious to employment discrimination.
One of the more recent cases that made headlines was Glasson v Google, in which the plaintiff Chelsey Glasson, sued for retaliation and pregnancy discrimination. After attempts to resolve the issue internally, being dismissed by HR and demoted, Glasson filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of Washington State.
In 2021, she reached an undisclosed settlement agreement with her ex-employer.
How to Identify Discrimination at Work?
In an ideal workplace, employers evaluate their employees solely on merit and treat everyone equally. However, the unfortunate reality is that employment discrimination still hinders many organizations, creating an environment of injustice and inequality.
It can manifest in various forms, and it’s essential to be attentive and knowledgeable to identify it.
“In my younger working years, I heard subtle jokes about my heritage and how I was supposed to fit a certain stereotype to be accepted by the other employees. These jokes were often accompanied by subtle jabs at my background, which made me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome,” explains Jacob.
Apart from this, other indicators that point to discrimination at work include:
- Treating employees differently and less favorably based on protected characteristics such as race, gender, religion, age, disability, or pregnancy. Examples of this are favoring one race over others in the hiring process, excluding women from promotions, showing evident disparities in assignments and training opportunities, and more.
- Experiencing verbal, physical, or visual harassment and a hostile or offensive work environment. For example, derogatory comments, offensive jokes, or unwarranted physical contact are forms of harassment and discrimination.
- Disparate impact discrimination occurs unintentionally, without explicit intent, for example, when a seemingly neutral policy or practice disproportionately affects individuals based on protected characteristics.
- Retaliation or punishing employees for reporting discrimination or participating in an investigation.
How to File a Discrimination Complaint Against an Employer?
Doing the right thing doesn’t always feel right.
Between fear of retaliation and HR trying to prevent a lawsuit, employees who are victims of discrimination or harassment often hesitate to speak up. However, with the proper knowledge and legal support behind them, they can and should hold their employer accountable.
Once workers identify job discrimination, the next step is to file a discrimination complaint against their employer by:
- Documenting the incident: When possible, it’s vital to keep detailed records of discriminatory incidents that can strengthen the case, including dates, times, locations, individuals involved, and any witnesses.
- Reviewing workplace policies: Every company has different policies on employment discrimination, and it’s vital to understand the internal processes before proceeding externally.
- Consulting HR: Reporting job discrimination to HR is essential before taking legal measures since it can resolve complaints internally and quickly.
- Filing a complaint externally: Employees can file a discrimination complaint against an employer with relevant government agencies like the EEOC when all else fails and discrimination persists.
- Seeking legal counsel: With a strong case and the proper documentation and evidence, employees can consult an employment attorney experienced in discrimination matters who can provide further guidance and legal representation.
“The particulars of a case involving employment discrimination significantly impact the likelihood of success,” explains Matt Little, Co-owner and Content Manager at Damien McEvoy Plumbing,
“Each case is unique and weighed according to its merits.
In most cases, an employee may have a good chance of winning their case if they have sufficient evidence to support their claim and can demonstrate that they were discriminated against.”
According to Gerald Sauer, Founding Partner at Attorneys for Employees, the odds of winning an employment discrimination case vary depending on the forum.
“Typically, employers prefer to have discrimination cases resolved in arbitration. A private proceeding in which a retired judge or an attorney, rather than a jury, decides the case.
In most instances, the monetary award in arbitration is less than the amount that a jury would award. Also, the grounds for an appeal of an arbitration award are narrower than in a jury trial. As a result, it is more difficult to reverse an incorrect decision made by the arbitrator.
Employees prefer jury trials because a typical jury panel will come from diverse backgrounds, many of whom are employees. In other words, juries are more sympathetic to the plight of employees who are discriminated against in the workplace.
As a result, juries tend to award higher damages.”
How Can Employers Prevent & Reduce Employment Discrimination?
Employment discrimination is unlawful and expensive.
However, the fear of dealing with a multi-million-dollar lawsuit shouldn’t be the only motivator to prevent and reduce discrimination.
Creating a just and open-minded workplace is, first and foremost, an ethical obligation for all organizations and a vital step toward fostering an inclusive work environment that nurtures the employees’ physical and mental well-being.
From raising awareness to implementing diversity and inclusion programs, here are some of the best ways companies can tackle discrimination:
- Developing clear anti-discrimination policies, including prohibited behaviors and reporting incidents
- Educating workers about these policies and the consequences of discriminatory actions
- Providing mandatory anti-discrimination training for workers, managers, and the leadership
- Revising hiring policies to ensure fair recruitment, like blind resume screening techniques or diverse interview panels
- Implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) programs
- Encouraging employees to report job discrimination
- Taking these reports seriously, investigating the matters, and taking appropriate actions
Matt Little explains that his company has a resilience strategy towards the separation of any sort in the work environment.
“No matter their gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation, we believe every employee deserves to be treated fairly and respectfully.”
Little also shares that they thoroughly investigate and take any allegations very seriously.
“We have an unmistakable strategy set up for workers to report any oppressive conduct they might insight or witness, and we answer instantly to such reports.”
How Promoting Diversity Can Prevent Discrimination at Work?
Promoting diversity within the workforce is pivotal in preventing discrimination at work. It educates, provides new perspectives, and increases sensitivity and cultural awareness.
“I believe that companies should create an inclusive environment and provide ongoing training to employees so that discrimination isn’t tolerated or accepted in any form. This will ensure a safe and comfortable workplace for everyone,” says optometrist Besty S. Jacob.
Exposure to what we deem “different” and learning to embrace its advantages could erase years of exposure to unconscious bias and stereotyping.
In that sense, a diverse workplace can promote cross-cultural understanding, respect, and empathy, exposing employees to different traditions, beliefs, and perspectives, which helps reduce conflict and discriminatory attitudes.
In 2019, Big Business Bias revealed that since 2000, most big corporations, including an astounding 99% of Fortune 500 companies, have settled on at least one discrimination or harassment lawsuit.
As concerning as this sounds, the silver lining is that the workforce is taking a stand against discrimination and demanding better treatment. Between this and employers actively working on creating better employee experience, only collective effort will cause tangible, lasting change.
After all, fighting against employment discrimination not only protects workers’ rights but also contributes to a society where everyone can thrive without fear of bias or prejudice.
- What is Employment Discrimination?
- Absenteeism, Productivity Loss, and Turnover: The Cost of Racial Injustice
- Understanding the Effects of Discrimination in the Workplace
- Women, Business and the Law 2022
- LGBT People’s Experiences of Workplace Discrimination and Harassment
- Genetic Information Discrimination
- Harassment, EEOC
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Age Discrimination
- Americans with Disabilities Act
- Pregnancy Discrimination and Pregnancy-Related Disability Discrimination
- Equal Pay for Equal Work
- Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)
- Office of Civil Rights
- Employment Discrimination and Sexual Harassment at Large Corporations