What Is Considered Discrimination at Work?

Federal and state governments have enacted a number of laws that are intended to protect workers from workplace discrimination. When an employer discriminates against a potential or actual employee it means that a whole category of employees is disadvantaged, not because of their ability or experience, but because of a group or category that they belong to. Discrimination may take the following forms:

  • firing;
  • hiring;
  • pay;
  • promotion;
  • harassment;
  • retaliation.

The federal body that enforces anti-discrimination legislation is the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC). It primarily provides protection for workers who are employed in larger workplaces (more than 15 employees), but each state also has similar anti-discrimination legislation. The EEOC is able to receive complaints of discrimination or harassment. Complaints will be investigated and if proven to show that an employer has violated anti-discrimination legislation, then action, including fines and even criminal charges may be laid. The EEOC may also allow you to file a claim against your employer in the civil court.

What Is Considered Age Discrimination?

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) prohibits any form of age discrimination against employees who are aged over 40. Age discrimination may take the form of not hiring an older worker despite having the skills and / or experience for the job, paying less pay, declining attempts for promotion, harassment because of an employee’s age, firing someone because of their age, etc.

To file a complaint of age discrimination with the EEOC, you will need evidence that discrimination has taken place and / or that the employer has a well known practice of age discrimination as described by current or former employees.

What Is Considered Racial Or Religious Discrimination?

Racial or religious discrimination is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964. The anti discrimination laws are enforced by the EEOC. Racial discrimination is said to occur when an employer fires, refuses to hire, pays less, refuses to promote or harasses an employee because of their ethnicity or their religious denomination. For example, a female Muslim employee who is told they cannot continue to be employed because they wear a hijab, even if this does not compromise their performance at work or their safety, is experiencing religious discrimination.

The legislation also prohibits any form of retaliation against the employee from filing a complaint with the EEOC regarding racial or religious discrimination.


The Family Medical and Leave Act allows employees to take time off work for legitimate compassionate family or medical reasons. An employer who retaliates against an employee because they have applied for, or taken, legitimate time off work for family or medical leave, could be violating the FMLA. An employer who attempts to dissuade the employee or prevents the employee from taking time off could also be violating the act. In this case, it is the Wags and Hours Division of the U.S. Department of Labor (DoL) that enforces the FMLA and deals with complaints of employee violations.

What Is Considered Gender Discrimination?

Gender discrimination is any discrimination similar to that described above for race and religious affiliation by an employer. It is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and complaints should be filed with the EEOC which enforces the legislation and deals with violations.

What to Do If You Have Been Discriminated Against?

If you have experienced discrimination against you by an employer, retaliation of any sort or harassment because of the group you belong to or because you have complained or reported a violation, you have the right to file a complaint with the EEOC or equivalent state agency that enforces anti-discrimination legislation. It is wise to attempt to get as much evidence as possible of the discrimination you have experienced. There is a complaint form you can fill in and file with the EEOC. Note that instances of FMLA discrimination must be addressed to the Wages and Hours Division of the DoL, rather than the EEOC.

Once a complaint has been received, it will be allocated to an investigator, who will attempt to check whether a violation of legislation has been made. The EEOC will normally try and resolve the discrimination if this has been found to have occurred, e.g. by arranging a meeting with you and the employer. If there has been a serious violation, then the EEOC has the power to impose fines or other penalties. In some cases, you may be given permission to sue the employer through the civil court.

In many cases of discrimination, it is wise to discuss all legal options with an experienced employment lawyer before actually filing a complaint.

Additional Resources