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What actions constitute workplace discrimination?

For most people, their jobs and employment constitute the majority of what they do each day. Employment is a central part of people's lives and it is for this reason that there exist laws to protect the civil rights of employees. Many of these laws relate to workplace discrimination. Although discrimination is common throughout society and it occurs for many different reasons, some types of discrimination are especially problematic in the workplace and are therefore prohibited under the law. Not all types of discrimination are prohibited, however.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the agency that enforces many of the laws related to employment discrimination. The types of workplace discrimination prohibited under federal law include the following: religious discrimination; discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, pregnancy, national origin, race/color, sex or genetic information; retaliation; equal pay/compensation; harassment; and sexual harassment.

Generally, the federal laws related to workplace discrimination prohibit inequal treatment based on one of the protected grounds, as well as retaliation for reporting discrimination. One commonly misunderstood aspect of the laws related to discrimination is that even neutral policies or practices may be prohibited under the law, depending on the effect of those laws. If any particular policy or practice in a place of employment disproportionately affects one group or type of employees or applicants--and if that group consists of people who share one of the protected characteristics--then the use of those policies or practices may also be considered discrimination.

Workplace discrimination is not limited to actions that strictly occur inside the workplace, either. If an employer uses or publishes job advertisements that reveal a preference for one type of employee over another type based on a protected characteristic, this is workplace discrimination. The same is true for recruitment tactics and decisions related to hiring and firing personnel, as well as promotions, and pay and benefits.

Source: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "Discrimination by Type," last accessed Dec. 21, 2014

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