How to Spot Discrimination in the Workplace

How to Spot Discrimination in the Workplace

No employee should face discrimination at work. Helpfully, numerous federal and state laws make discrimination illegal. But do you know what discrimination looks like? The lines between illegal and legal conduct are not always clear, but there are things both victims and witnesses should watch out for.

Discrimination Defined

Workplace discrimination exists whenever employees are treated differently because of certain protected characteristics, such as:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Sex (including pregnancy)
  • Sexual orientation and gender identity
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Religion
  • National origin


Discrimination can happen in all facets of employment, such as pay, termination, promotion, assignments, etc. For example, a boss who refuses to promote women candidates simply because they are women has committed sex discrimination.

Some employment discrimination also results from disparate impact. For example, a job might have requirements that on their face appear neutral. However, these requirements affect different employees unequally. An obvious example is a job requirement that states employees must be under 50 but age has nothing to do with the job duties. A job that requires applicants lift 150 pounds also has a disparate impact on women, since they typically cannot lift as much as men.

Harassment as Discrimination

Anti-discrimination law also prohibits sexual harassment, which takes two forms:

  • Quid pro quo: a boss promises a subordinate something (like a promotion) in exchange for sex, or threatens to fire them unless they sleep with him
  • Hostile workplace: the workplace becomes abusive and intimidating because of severe and pervasive conduct that is unwelcome


Most harassment is sexual harassment, but any unwelcome conduct based on a protected characteristic listed above can qualify.

Have You Been the Victim of Employment Discrimination?

Employers are not in the habit of admitting that they are discriminating against someone, so it often isn’t clear if you didn’t get a raise or promotion because of a protected characteristic. Nevertheless, be on the lookout for the following:

  • You are passed over for promotion or a raise in spite of having stellar performance reviews.
  • You are terminated when no one has ever raised a problem with your performance.
  • The timing of any employment action is suspicious. For example, you might have told your boss you were pregnant and soon been demoted.
  • Someone heard your boss make racist or discriminatory comments.
  • Everyone promoted or terminated is of the same race, sex, religion, etc.


There is no sure-fire proof that you have suffered discrimination, but the above examples should raise red flags which warrant more investigation.

Signs a Workplace is Hostile

Anyone can complain about a hostile workplace—the person who is the target of the conduct or anyone who observes it. Examples of hostile conduct include:

  • Jokes
  • Slurs
  • Name calling
  • Threats
  • Intimidation
  • Ridicule
  • Mockery
  • Offense pictures
  • Touching or assault

For example, Mike might target Gina because she is Korean-American. He makes endless offensive jokes and displays racist imagery around his desk. He even pretends to talk with an accent to sound like a Korean immigrant. In total, this conduct can make the workplace abusive and hostile for Gina.

Annoyances, petty slights, and isolated incidents or comments rarely rise to the level of harassment, so look for a continuing pattern. One bad joke probably doesn’t create an abusive workplace, though a physical assault probably would.

Speak with a New Jersey Discrimination Lawyer Today

If you think you have been discriminated against at work, you need a knowledgeable employment lawyer in your corner. At the Sattiraju & Tharney, LLP, we have an unmatched track record of success, including numerous six-, seven-, and eight-figure awards on behalf of our clients. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.