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Updated Nov 06, 2023

Employment and Anti-Discrimination Laws in the Workplace

Follow these workplace anti-discrimination laws to keep your organization safe and compliant.

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Skye Schooley, Senior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
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Table of Contents

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It is an employer’s responsibility to ensure their employees have a safe and inclusive workplace that is free from discrimination and harassment. As employers and employees navigate a combination of in-office and remote work, workplace discrimination may look a little different. Discriminatory practices don’t have to occur in the office to be considered workplace discrimination. 

With this in mind, it’s critical to understand what workplace discrimination is, what discrimination laws apply to you and your team and how to prevent this kind of behavior from occurring.

What is workplace discrimination?

Workplace discrimination occurs when a worker is treated unfavorably based on a protected characteristic. Although the range of protected characteristics can vary from state to state, federal anti-discrimination laws protect employee characteristics, such as race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age and genetic information. All employees — even those under at-will employment — are afforded protection from discrimination based on these protected statuses.

It’s vital to understand exactly what constitutes unlawful discrimination as it can occur throughout any aspect of the employment relationship, such as during hiring, employment or termination. Some workplace discrimination is obvious and other incidents are more subtle. However, all workplace discrimination is illegal.

“While we often think of discrimination in terms of ‘big’ or decisive events, such as termination of employment, failure to hire or denial of a promotion, discrimination can also exist in day-to-day aspects of the employment relationship, such as denial of preferred shifts, disparate discipline and/or rescission or denial of responsibilities,” Andrea Milano, special counsel at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, told

Employment and anti-discrimination laws

Several anti-discrimination laws govern how you can and cannot treat employees and co-workers. The following federal laws protect workers from specific acts of discrimination. Keep in mind, each state or jurisdiction may also have its own laws and restrictions on what is deemed a discriminatory practice, so it’s crucial that you familiarize yourself with the laws and guidelines that are applicable to your location.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects employees (and certain applicants) 40 years or older from age discrimination in the workplace. This act applies to employers with 20 or more employees.

American with Disabilities Act of 1990

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prevents discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including employment. Title I of the ADA deals with employment and ensures that people with disabilities are fully considered during the recruitment process and provided reasonable workplace accommodations if needed. This act applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

Did You Know?Did you know
Hiring people with disabilities can benefit your business greatly. It can increase your profit margin, diversify your company culture, increase employee motivation and reduce employee turnover.

Equal Pay Act

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) requires employers to maintain equality by paying men and women the same wages for performing the same jobs. The EPA is part of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which requires employers to comply with minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping and youth employment standards and requirements. 

Family Medical Leave Act

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers to provide covered employees with job-protected and unpaid family leave for qualifying events. Qualifying events can include the birth or adoption of a child, having a serious health condition or needing to care for an immediate family member, such as a spouse, child or parent, who is suffering from a serious health condition. The FMLA applies to businesses with 50 or more employees, public agencies and elementary and secondary schools.

Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on pregnancy, childbirth or pregnancy-related medical conditions, such as miscarriage. This act applies to all employers covered under Title VII — see below.

Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act

Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 prevents employers from discriminating against an employee due to their genetic information. This applies to federal and state governments, private employers with 15 or more employees, private and public employment agencies, labor organizations and joint-labor management committees.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits employers from discriminating against job applicants and employees based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It also prohibits employers from engaging in retaliation against applicants or employees who exercise their legal rights, such as whistleblowing. Title VII applies to federal and state governments, private employers with 15 or more employees, employment agencies, labor organizations and joint-labor management training and apprenticeship programs.

Immigration Reform and Control Act

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 prevents employers from discriminating against applicants and employees based on their citizenship or national origin. It also prohibits employers from knowingly hiring or recruiting workers who are unauthorized to work in the United States.

>> Read next: Everything You Need to Know About Hiring Foreign Nationals

Types of discrimination in the workplace

Regardless of whether it is significant misbehavior or a minor transgression, workplace discrimination is illegal and should be avoided at all costs. Because some instances of employment discrimination may be a bit unclear to employees, it is essential you train your staff on what is and isn’t acceptable behavior.

The five most common forms of discrimination are:

  1. Retaliation: An employer may not retaliate against an employee for lawfully reporting an illegal, illicit, unsafe or fraudulent work practice — also referred to as whistleblowing. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) grants employees the right to a safe and healthy work environment; if an employee lawfully reports unsafe or unhealthful conditions, the employer cannot take adverse action against the employee in retaliation.

    Marianne Curtis, an employment litigation attorney and partner at Berger Singerman, said retaliation typically occurs between a boss and a subordinate, although it can occur between two colleagues.

    “The retaliation can be done in very subtle ways, such as isolation or providing unfavorable work,” said Curtis.” Alternatively, the retaliation can be more overt through termination with unstated or generic reasons as the basis for termination.”

  2. Racial discrimination: It is illegal to discriminate against an employee due to their race. Although racial discrimination has been an issue in the workplace for a long time, recent social justice movements have magnified the impact of this type of discrimination in a very public way.”Employers must ensure that the work environment is not just ‘not racist’ but, rather, ‘anti-racist,'” said Curtis. “In other words, employers must take affirmative steps to ensure that Black employees and employees of color are protected from subtle forms of discrimination.”
  3. Disability discrimination: It is illegal to discriminate against an employee due to their disability status. For example, you may not exclude an applicant from consideration for a job simply because of their disability, provided they can perform the job’s function with reasonable accommodations. Reasonable accommodations can include offering flextime, granting additional medical leave and making your office wheelchair accessible.
  4. Sex discrimination: It is illegal to discriminate against an employee due to their sex, including gender identity, sexual orientation and pregnancy status. For example, an employer is not allowed to discriminate against an employee or applicant due to their LGBTQ+ status. They are also not permitted to pay men and women different salaries based on their gender. [Find out the hidden ways gender bias can sabotage recruitment.]


    “The most ubiquitous form of discrimination that women still face can be as simple as inappropriate comments from men that suggest women should not be in the workplace or inappropriate commentary on a woman’s body — even if the man believes it to be a ‘harmless’ joke,” said Curtis.
  5. Age discrimination (ageism): Employees may not be discriminated against due to their age. The ADEA protects employees over 40 years of age, but some states also have legal protections for employees under 40. Age discrimination is often experienced when employers don’t want to hire older employees because of perceived limitations. Employers may not specify age preferences when recruiting new candidates and they may not promote, terminate or compensate employees based on age either.

A few other protected characteristics that are sometimes discriminated against in the workplace include religion, national origin and genetic information.

FYIDid you know
Everyone holds some level of unconscious bias against certain groups of people. It is important that you and your employees are aware of your unconscious biases so they don't result in discrimination.

Employer risks of workplace discrimination

If an employee experiences discrimination in the workplace, the employer may face a myriad of consequences based on the severity of the transgression and the governing state. For example, Thu Do, partner at Employer Defense Group, said that harassment, discrimination or retaliation in the workplace can cause physical and/or mental injuries to an employee, resulting in legal action against the employer.

“In many states, including California, workers’ compensation might be available to pay for those injuries, but it’s not always the only remedy for a victim of discrimination to get money,” said Do. “Victims can also file a lawsuit in civil court for the harassment, discrimination and retaliation in addition to filing a workers’ claim.”

In addition to lawsuits, discrimination claims can cost your business in terms of money and reputation. What’s more, if your business is liable for cultivating a work environment that normalizes and accepts workplace discrimination, you will likely face bigger problems than one discrimination lawsuit.

Milano said employer risks can include:

  • Damages for lost wages and benefits
  • Emotional distress damages
  • Compensatory damages
  • Interest fees
  • Statutory fees and penalties
  • Attorney fees
  • Time and business interruptions
  • Investigations by state or federal anti-discrimination agencies, including broad enforcement authority and affirmative, remedial action
  • Bad public relations
  • Loss of standing within the community
  • Loss of employee morale
Bottom LineBottom line
As an employer, you could be found liable in a lawsuit if discrimination happened to an employee at work. Having policies in place to prevent discrimination is the best way to protect all parties.

Preventing discrimination in the workplace

The best way to prevent discrimination in the workplace is by implementing proper policies and education training. Every small business owner should establish written anti-discrimination protocols and provide their employees with the corresponding training.

“There must be a uniform system in place to address complaints or reports of discrimination,” said Do. “This uniform system should apply to all individuals in a business regardless of the position.”

Creating a safe and inclusive workplace starts from the top down; business leaders must set an example for their organization and show that discrimination will not be tolerated. You also want to foster an open culture that encourages employees to report any issues they encounter and address any concerns staffers raise in a timely and professional manner. When employees know you are taking this matter seriously, they are more likely to comply.

“Anti-discrimination laws provide the floor of what conduct is legally unacceptable, but everyone within your company should be striving to maintain a respectful workplace where everyone is treated with dignity and respect at all times and on all bases,” said Milano.

Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Skye Schooley, Senior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
Skye Schooley is a dedicated business professional who is especially passionate about human resources and digital marketing. For more than a decade, she has helped clients navigate the employee recruitment and customer acquisition processes, ensuring small business owners have the knowledge they need to succeed and grow their companies. In recent years, Schooley has enjoyed evaluating and comparing HR software and other human resources solutions to help businesses find the tools and services that best suit their needs. With a degree in business communications, she excels at simplifying complicated subjects and interviewing business vendors and entrepreneurs to gain new insights. Her guidance spans various formats, including newsletters, long-form videos and YouTube Shorts, reflecting her commitment to providing valuable expertise in accessible ways.
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