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What is workplace discrimination?

Discrimination is prejudicial treatment in the workplace, which may affect hiring, firing, promotions, salary, job assignments, training, benefits and/or layoffs, based on a person's age, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, national origins or disabilities.

Discrimination laws protect both current workers and prospective workers. Any employee who feels they have been discriminated against in the workplace can file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and possibly file suit against the company.

Harassment, on the other hand, is unwelcome conduct that is discriminatory or sexual in nature. This harassment must be severe, continuous or a condition of employment. There is a fine line between what is perceived as a harmless joke and workplace harassment. Employers who have questions about discrimination or harassment issues should talk to an employement attorney.

Types of workplace discrimination

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission identifies several different types of workplace discrimination, including:

Age — The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) makes it a violation to discriminate against current or prospective employees over the age of 40. Employees under 40 are not protected from age discrimination by federal law, but they may be covered by state laws.

Sex — Civil rights law forbids workplace discrimination based on a person's gender or sexual orientation.

Race — The Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that employers cannot discriminate against workers or applicants based on race.

Religion — The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also forbids employers from discriminating based on religion. Employers must make all reasonable accommodation for religious practices unless it presents an undue burden to the employer.

National origin — Employers are banned from discriminating against employees or applicants based on their ethnic background or perceived ethnic background. In addition, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 makes it a violation to discriminate against a worker or applicant based on his/her citizenship or immigration status.

Disability — According to the Americans with Disability Act and the Rehabilitation Act, employers cannot discriminate against current or prospective employees based on any physical and mental disability or previous medical condition, such as cancer. The employer also must make reasonable accommodations in the workplace for these employees.

Equal pay — The Equal Pay Act requires employers to pay employees equal pay for equal jobs, despite the person's gender, age, race, religion, national origin or disability.

Pregnancy — The Pregnancy Discrimination Act forbids employers from discriminating against women in the workplace due to pregnancy, and the employer must provide reasonable accommodations when necessary.

Genetic information — The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 makes it a violation for an employer to discriminate against a worker based on their genetic information.

Harassment — Harassment in the workplace is banned by several acts, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Americans with Disability Act of 1990 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

Sexual harassment — Sexual harassment, which includes unwelcome verbal or physical sexual advancements or request for sexual favors, is illegal in the workplace.

How to avoid workplace discrimination issues

While completely preventing discrimination can be a challenge, there are several steps your company can take to help minimize the risk of workplace discrimination.

1. Employee Handbook

One important step you can take is to develop a clear discrimination policy for your company, and include it in your Employee Handbook. This can be helpful whether you manage a small, medium or large company. The policies should clearly define workplace discrimination and explain the complaint process. For example, will you ask employees to file a formal Complaint Form? Will you issue a Warning Letter? These are questions that you will want to consider.

The wording of your discrimination policy is extremely important, especially if an employee files an EEOC complaint or lawsuit. For this reason, it can be helpful to talk to a local attorney while drafting your policy.

2. Employee Training

Anti-discrimination training is another useful strategy to help reduce the risk of discrimination in the workplace. This training should include tips for identifying discrimination in the workplace, how to avoid discrimination and how to handle discrimination claims.

3. Work with an Attorney

Due to the complexities of the discrimination laws, employers should always talk to an attorney any time a discrimination issue arises. An experienced attorney can help you take the right steps immediately that may help to avoid further actions, which could have a detrimental effect on the company.

Workplace discrimination should not be taken lightly, no matter how big or small your company is, because the repercussions can be severe. Even if you have had no current issues of discrimination in your workplace, it is important to be prepared before an issue arises.

Got specific questions? Ask a lawyer.

 Putting in place policies and procedures to combat discrimination in the workplace helps both employers and employees. Rocket Lawyer employment documents are vetted by lawyers and legal staff, so you can use them with confidence. If you have questions or want to make sure you're doing it right, ask a lawyer for help.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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