Tools for Preventing and Addressing Discrimination in the Workplace

Combating the five most common forms of workplace discrimination.

Workplace discrimination, in any form, can poison company culture, stifle innovation and depress morale. But the harmful effects go much further. It can spell ruin for executive teams and result in serious financial penalties for companies who allow discrimination issues to fester.

Sound obvious? Well, lots of companies either don’t take discrimination seriously enough or don’t do enough to stop it. During fiscal 2014, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) fielded 88,778 charges of workplace discrimination. Those claims resulted in $318 million paid out by offending companies.

The top five types of discrimination charges were:

  1. Retaliation (under all statutes): 42.8 percent of all charges filed
  2. Race (including racial harassment): 35 percent of all charges filed
  3. Sex (including pregnancy and sexual harassment): 29.3 percent of all charges filed
  4. Disability: 28.6 percent of all charges filed
  5. Age: 23.2 percent of all charges filed

Preventing the Top Five EEOC Discrimination Charges

To avoid becoming one of these statistics it’s critical for every organization to implement an effective ethics and compliance program. A good program fosters strong values throughout the company. And when issues of discrimination—no matter how small—crop up at work, they must be met with a swift, thorough response and investigation.  

To help bolster your anti-discrimination efforts, we’ve rounded up some of our top tools and resources that can help organizations understand, prevent and address the five most common forms of discrimination.

1) Retaliation

Retaliation claims filed with the EEOC jumped nearly two percentage points from 2013 to 2014. Retaliatory behavior in the workplace is perhaps one of the most intractable problems to combat, as it’s closely tied to aspects of basic human nature and can manifest itself in many ways. Still, everybody is entitled, by law, to protection from retaliation at work. This includes whistleblowers.

There are systematic ways to address retaliation. For one thing, as the 2013 National Business Ethics Survey from the Ethics Resource Center tells us, 60 percent of all misconduct is committed by managers, much of it in the form of retaliation. One of the keys to tackling retaliation is to educate managers on what it is and how to prevent it. Misunderstandings about what constitutes retaliation, undue work-related pressure and lack of accountability can all contribute to retaliation-related issues growing.  For additional tools and insights on preventing retaliation before it starts, see our blog post, “Retaliation is Flourishing: What You Can Do About It” and our related research report, “Retaliation in the Workplace.

2) Racial Discrimination

The second most common charge filed with the EEOC, racial discrimination, includes racial harassment. By training managers on how to properly handle controversial conversations in the workplace, many problems in this realm can be avoided before they occur.

Other, more distressing racial problems, (like those that have caused celebrities to fall from grace), are best avoided by providing all employees with robust education programs that help create a tolerant workplace free of toxic words and slurs. And then, of course, vigorously enforcing your policy. Without visible enforcement, a policy isn’t much more than an empty promise to your employees.

3) Sex Discrimination

High profile sex discrimination charges within the tech sector at places like Tinder, Github and Kleiner Perkins have revealed how pervasive gender discrimination in the workplace continues to be. In addition, pregnancy discrimination, even 37 years after Congress outlawed it, remains an issue as evidenced by a recent Supreme Court case. To address sex discrimination issues, organizations must start with senior leadership support and buy-in; they will need to stand behind some tough decisions.

High quality sex and gender discrimination training for managers and employees alike is also critical.

4) Disability Discrimination

Recent changes in the law have expanded the definition of disability, making it easier for employees to establish that they have disability, and requiring employers to be more lenient during the interactive process. The EEOC’s discrimination definition includes not allowing disabilities to influence decisions regarding hiring, firing, pay, job assignments or other work-related judgments, as well as straight-up harassment in the form of offensive remarks that can create a hostile working environment.

Employees with disabilities have the right, by law, to expect reasonable accommodations from employers. The laws here are complex, but the most important thing is to properly set expectations and provide the right level of education and training on the subject for employees. This includes educating managers about who is a qualified individual with a disability, helping them understand the interactive process, and ensuring they understand their obligation to keep medical information private. It also includes ensuring that employees know how to request an accommodation and how to disclose conditions to managers or HR.

5) Age Discrimination

Another form of discrimination that can arise in all sorts of unexpected ways, is age discrimination. According to Fortune Magazine reporter Vivian Giang, the term “digital native” may be the latest term that could signal a problem with ageism in the workplace. This is true especially when the term is used in job postings and promotion decisions. I recently spoke with Giang about how the term “digital natives” makes me cringe, as it has strong-age based connotations associated with it.

As the economy continues to evolve, and more and more employees are replaced with technology, I expect to see increased activity in this claim type. For more insights on this trend, and how to ensure that your hiring practices do not cross the line into hiring discrimination, read the full text of the Fortune article here.


Ethics and compliance programs are effective only to the degree that they help build and support a strong organizational culture that repels misconduct—including discrimination. Ensuring your workplace is free of all forms of discrimination can challenge even the best leaders and HR departments. The best way, as with all things, is prevention through education and building the right kind of organizational culture from the start.

Chat with a solutions expert to learn how you can take your compliance program to the next level of maturity.

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