Discrimination in the workplace: A 2024 guide

In the U.S., 61% of workers have experienced or witnessed discrimination.

Cartoon image of a man in front of a laptop who appears stressed and upset at work

Discrimination in the workplace is a global problem. In the U.S. alone, 61% of workers have experienced or witnessed discrimination based on age, race, gender, or sexual orientation. And these aren’t the only identity- and background-based categories subjected to discrimination. People with different abilities, neurodiverse statuses, ethnicities, religions, languages spoken, accents used, and socioeconomic levels often experience discrimination at work as well.

The consequences of discrimination in the workplace begin with gaps in hiring, wages, and representation in management for marginalized groups. These consequences then radiate into society, including via health, education, and income disparities.

There are international, national, and local laws that protect people from discrimination. However, many underrepresented groups are also impacted by a systematic suppression of information about these resources and a lack of access to justice. At the company level, organizations should have proactive policies in place to address discrimination. This guide will provide a comprehensive look at discrimination in the workplace, as well as at key ways to prevent and eliminate it.

What is discrimination in the workplace?

Discrimination in the workplace occurs when an employer treats an employee or job applicant less favorably because of certain characteristics unrelated to the person’s competencies or the requirements of the job. These characteristics include (but are not limited to) gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, or ability. What is the effect of discrimination? It impairs equality of opportunity and treatment in the workplace.

Discrimination in the workplace can happen against a single person or a whole group. It can be perpetrated by business owners, managers, or coworkers. This unequal treatment does not have to be intentional for it to be discriminatory. Often, workplaces may be engaging in discriminatory practices without being aware of it.

What employment discrimination looks like

Discrimination in the workplace can manifest in various forms. While no discrimination is tolerable, it becomes a serious issue when it involves:

  • Unequal treatment due to characteristics such as race, gender, disability, etc.
  • Harassment by anyone in your workplace due to those same characteristics
  • Denial of workplace accommodations needed due to disability or religious belief
  • Improper questions about medical information
  • Retaliation for complaints about job discrimination or for exercising legal rights

Where does discrimination occur?

Discrimination in the workplace can happen before a candidate is hired, on the job, or when the employee is leaving. These are common work situations where discrimination occurs:

  • In job descriptions
  • During recruitment: In applications, screening, and interviews
  • In salary and compensation
  • In work hours assigned
  • In paid time off (or the lack of it)
  • In parental benefits
  • In job security (or a lack of it)
  • In job assignments
  • In job promotions and future prospects
  • In training and development opportunities
  • In response to participation in employee organizations or unions
  • In benefits
  • In working conditions/health and safety
  • In job termination or separation

For the latter point, note that discrimination may also occur when an employer disciplines or terminates an employee specifically for discussing or disclosing salary information — something that a slew of new salary transparency laws are hoping to prevent.

Types of discrimination in the workplace

There are many different types of discrimination in the workplace that people report experiencing. Which categories are protected will depend on national and local laws.

  • Ageism
  • Racism and/or ethnic discrimination
  • Sexism
  • Sexual orientation or gender identity-based discrimination
  • Ableism
  • Discrimination around one’s status as a parent
  • Religious discrimination
  • Caste discrimination
  • Socioeconomic and/or educational background discrimination
  • Accent discrimination
  • National origin and/or immigrant status discrimination
  • Pregnancy discrimination
  • Sexual harassment
  • HIV/AIDS status discrimination
  • Discriminating against trade union membership status
  • Discriminating against political opinions & affiliations
  • Genetic information discrimination — meaning, genetic testing or results of any genetic testing including family medical history
  • Reprisal/retaliation against those who’ve made discrimination complaints or filed charges

What distinctions are allowed?

Companies are allowed to make some distinctions between employees and/or job candidates that are not considered discriminatory. Making distinctions based on the skills needed for a job position is acceptable. Different compensation for employees with different skill levels, education, or hours worked is allowed. Providing protections or benefits for those categories is not considered discrimination under the law. For example, providing parental benefits to pregnant workers is not discrimination against workers who are not pregnant.

Companies can (and should) work to correct historical exclusions and discrimination and instead promote equity in the workplace. This is not considered “reverse” discrimination.

Harassment as employment discrimination

Harassment is considered a form of discrimination in the workplace. Employees and job candidates are protected from harassment under most national and local laws.

In the U.S., harassment is “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history).”

U.S. law specifies that “petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents” are not considered illegal forms of harassment. Harassment is to be considered illegal when:

  1. Enduring this unwelcome conduct is a condition of employment.
  2. The conduct makes the workplace hostile, intimidating, or abusive.

Employers are liable for harassment in the workplace when it results in negative consequences for workers such as not getting hired, job termination, or a loss of wages.

Data about discrimination in the workplace

Data shows that discrimination is a persistent and ongoing problem around the world. Common indicators of discrimination in the workplace are gaps in employment rates between groups, wage gaps, lawsuits filed, and reports of discrimination.

Reports of discrimination

Around the world, people from various groups and backgrounds report being discriminated against at work.

  • In 2021, 5.23 million women in the EU reported being discriminated against at work. By comparison, 3.63 million men reported the same.
  • In the US, 31% of women report being discriminated against when applying for jobs because of their gender.
  • Nearly half (45.5%) of surveyed LGBTQIA+ workers in the U.S. reported unfair treatment at work because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. One-third (31.1%) reported experiencing discrimination in the last five years.
  • 57% of Black Americans say they’ve experienced discrimination in salary and promotions.
  • 54% of Native Americans living in majority Indigenous areas report facing discrimination in hiring, promotion, and pay.
  • 27% of Asian Americans report being discriminated against during job applications,pay, and promotion consideration
  • Eurostat published this table about experiences of workplace discrimination in the EU: