Ask a Workplace Discrimination Lawyer: What Is the Legal Definition of Discrimination?

Working in an environment that is free from discrimination is a basic human right in the United States. Both federal and state laws exist to protect individuals from being denied employment or receiving unfair treatment as a result of employer biases. Employees who experience discrimination in the workplace can increase their chances of winning a lawsuit against their employer by seeking the input of a workplace discrimination lawyer.

Ask a Workplace Discrimination Lawyer: What Is the Legal Definition of Discrimination?

Discrimination is the unfair or unequal treatment of an individual based on a trait that he or she shares with a marginalized group. In the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the organization that is responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws. According to the EEOC, it is illegal to discriminate against someone based on their race, color, national origin, religion, age, sex, gender, pregnancy status, disability, or genetic information.

The negative effects of discrimination can be extremely serious, making it difficult for the individual to find housing, advance a career, and even feel safe in his or her environment. While discrimination can occur anywhere, it is an issue that comes up frequently in the workplace. Here are some examples that illustrate what workplace discrimination looks like:

Hiring, Firing, and Awarding Promotions

Many workplace discrimination claims involve company practices surrounding how employees are hired, promoted, and terminated. It is illegal for a company to favor one group of people over another. For example, an employer cannot hire or promote a black candidate over an Asian candidate with better qualifications based on race. Similarly, an employer cannot terminate an employee based on negative beliefs about his or her race, religion, gender, etc.  

When gathering evidence in a workplace discrimination case, employment lawyers will often look into the company’s HR records. If they see that a certain group of people is underrepresented, their findings could point to underlying biases.

The Denial of Equal Company Resources

Discrimination can have a profound effect on an employee’s work experience, especially if he or she is denied equal access to company resources. The resources in question might include:

  • Conference rooms
  • Training programs
  • Technology and office supplies
  • Restrooms and break areas
  • Company vehicles
  • Company phone lines, servers, and data

The Refusal to Grant Reasonable Accommodations

Some individuals must work in a specific location or receive other accommodations due to their religion or disability. Denying a reasonable request for such accommodations can be grounds for a workplace discrimination claim.


The EEOC considers harassment a form of discrimination when individuals are targeted for being members of a certain group. Harassment ranges from off-hand comments and habitual teasing to unwanted physical contact. The effect of harassment is that the targeted person or group of people has the disadvantage of working in a hostile environment.

Employer Retaliation

Sometimes, individuals are fired, demoted, or disciplined for reporting an incident involving discrimination. Bringing attention to unlawful behavior in the workplace is a practice known as whistleblowing.

Legally, employers cannot retaliate against employees for exorcizing their rights or for complaining about unlawful behavior. If you experienced retaliation in connection to an incident involving employer discrimination, you may have additional grounds on which to hold your employer accountable for paying damages.

Discrimination by Association

You don’t necessarily need to belong to the group of people against whom your employer is biased in order to become a target. Some individuals have experienced discrimination based on who they are friends with, who their network includes, and/or who they choose to marry.

How to File a Workplace Discrimination Lawsuit

To file a lawsuit against your employer, you must first submit a claim to the Missouri Commission on Human Rights and receive a Notice of the Right to Sue following an investigation. The statute of limitations is 180 days beginning on the day the incident occurred. Your lawyer can help you get the information you need to file your claim. You can visit this page for more information on finding an employment lawyer.

Settling vs. Going to Court

When you receive a Notice of the Right to Sue, you can proceed with the lawsuit. Often, employers will seek to settle outside of court rather than take the case all the way to trial.

Depending on whether or not you are offered a fair amount, accepting a settlement offer is one way to collect the compensation you deserve without risking the outcome of the case on a verdict that may or may not be in your favor. As the negotiations with your employer progress, your lawyer will keep you informed about your options while working to increase your payout.

Workplace discrimination is an illegal practice that creates unfair, dysfunctional work environments. By law, your employer is responsible for upholding practices that provide equal treatment of all employees. If you want to know whether or not an incident you experienced qualifies as workplace discrimination, speaking with an employment lawyer can clarify your legal options.