What Is Workplace Discrimination?

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Whether you’re the general manager of a hotel or the hiring manager of a large company, these days it can be hard to find the right candidate for a lot of jobs. Say you’ve narrowed down the pool to a few promising candidates based on an online application and/or resumé…but you haven’t had a chance to meet the candidates in person yet.

If your hotel caters specifically to a younger crowd, how surprising is it going to be when you look across the desk at your best candidate and find out he’s in his late 50s? If you are looking for someone to come in and do a job regularly for the next year, how disappointing is it going to be when your best candidate comes in obviously pregnant?

Both of these are good illustrations of how discrimination can become an issue in the workplace. Can you deny a person a job because of their age? Or because you assume they have a medical condition that would hinder them from doing the job?

According to the EEOC, discriminating against someone “means to treat that person differently, or less favorably, for some reason. Discrimination can occur while you are at school, at work, or in a public place, such as a mall or subway station. You can be discriminated against by school friends, teachers, coaches, co-workers, managers, or business owners.” (EEOC.gov)

Workplace discrimination, whether based on race, gender, age, religion, or some other factor can definitely contribute to the feelings of a hostile work environment, cause stress to the employees discriminated against, and put the company into legal jeopardy, both civil and criminal.

The Law

There are multiple layers of anti-discrimination law to contend with at any one time, but no matter what state your business is in, you must comply with the federal mandates. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines specific “protected classes” that include “ racecolorreligionsex (including pregnancysexual orientation, or gender identity), national originage (40 or older), disability and genetic information (including family medical history).” Furthermore, employers are prohibited from retaliation or punishment against applicants, employees, or former employees for filing a charge of discrimination, participating in investigations, or opposing discrimination.

The specific laws you need to be aware of include  the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), Equal Pay Act, Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act).” (Gusto)

State and local laws may offer additional employee protections. For instance, last year Tennessee passed the CROWN Act, making it illegal to discriminate against persons based on their hairstyle. We wrote all about it if you need to catch up.

Also realize that you don’t have to mean to discriminate for an action to be illegal…you can be legally responsible with or without intention.

How To Respond

If you have an employee that complains about discrimination in the workplace, your very first move must be to investigate the claim. Make your investigation as thorough as you are capable of and keep meticulous records of it. Like an actual court trial, you should go into the investigation assuming neither guilt nor innocence on anyone’s part…and you should never promise a specific outcome to the employee or the accused.

When the investigation has been complete, document your conclusions (again…thoroughly) and the actions you took. If the accused did intentionally or unintentionally discriminate against the accuser, you need to take the appropriate disciplinary action, which can include termination. I would strongly urge caution and repeat the need for thorough documentation if it does lead to termination, though, as that person may find some reason to file their own complaint.

Make whatever changes you need to in your official company documentation and employee manual to reflect that discrimination in the workplace will not be tolerated at any level. Then spell out the punishments that are on the table in cases where it does occur.

Putting everything in writing, both during the investigation and after—as well as spelling out violations and consequences for the future—is paramount in protecting your company from legal trouble at local, state, and federal levels. 

Do your best to inspire and grow a workplace culture that is open, friendly, and inclusive. Make sure employees are properly trained in what is not allowed, promptly address any complaints, and consult with legal professionals to make sure you stay in compliance with anti-discrimination laws.

What Is Workplace Discrimination?