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What is the Difference Between Discrimination and Harassment?

Written By: Mo Eldessouky Updated On: February 24, 2023 | Read Time: 8 Minutes

When it comes to employment law, the terms discrimination and harassment often get used interchangeably.

Both of these are forms of illegal and unacceptable workplace behavior, but they are actually two separate acts. As such, they are handled differently and have different legal ramifications.

In this article, we’ll break down the key differences between discrimination and harassment. As an employee, it is important to understand these distinctions so that you can protect your rights in the workplace.

What is the difference between discrimination and harassment?

Discrimination is when your employer or coworkers treat members of a protected class unfairly due to their membership in that class. Harassment is a form of discrimination that involves adverse actions targeted towards an individual due to their membership in a protected class that creates a hostile work environment.

Victims of discrimination may find themselves excluded from certain opportunities or privileges, such as promotions and raises. Harassment is often more personal and can involve offensive comments, slurs, physical threats or intimidation.

It’s important to remember that both discrimination and harassment are illegal actions in the workplace. If you believe that you have been the victim of either of these acts, you can file a complaint with the appropriate state or federal agency. Additionally, you may be able to seek damages in civil court.

Speak with an employment lawyer to learn more about filing a discrimination or harassment claim.

What is a protected class?

protected class is a group of people who have been legally recognized as belonging to a certain minority.

Protected classes in California include Race, Color, Ancestry, National Origin, Sexual orientation, Gender identity and expression, Sex, Pregnancy, childbirth & related medical conditions, Religion, Disability, Age (for persons 40 and older), Military or veteran status, Status as a victim of domestic violence, assault or stalking, Genetic information, Political affiliation or activities, Medical or health conditions, and Marital status.

It is illegal for employers or coworkers to discriminate against individuals belonging to a protected class in any way. This includes discrimination in hiring, firing, promotion decisions, and other workplace activities. 

What is Discrimination?

Discrimination happens when an employee is treated differently or unfairly in the workplace due to their membership in a protected class. This can be direct or indirect.

Direct discrimination is when an employer or coworker explicitly singles out someone belonging to a protected class and treats them differently than others.

Indirect discrimination is more subtle, such as when an employer sets policies that have a disproportionate impact on members of a certain group.

What Actions Are Considered Discrimination in the Workplace?

One of the factors that a Plaintiff in a discrimination lawsuit must prove is that they experienced an adverse employment action or other unlawful conduct. California Jury Instructions CACI 2500. However, what constitutes an adverse employment action?

Under the California Civil Jury Instructions, an adverse employment action includes any action or pattern of conduct that “materially and adversely affects the terms, conditions, or privileges” of your employment. California Jury Instructions CACI 2509. This may include actions that are likely to affect your prospects of advancement or promotion at your workplace, including demotion and termination. However, it will not include any action that only angers or upsets you. 

Examples of acts that fall within adverse employment actions include the following: 

  • Refusing to promote an employee because of the age, sex, race, or pregnancy;
  • Terminating the employment of a worker, demoting them, or transferring them to a less favorable position because of their protected status;
  • Denying fair pay to employees for reasons that are discriminatory;
  • Adopting workplace policies that unfairly, and negatively, affect certain employees due to their protected characteristics; 
  • Retaliating against a worker who stands up for themselves against these injustices by exposing them to negative workplace decisions

These are just a few of the circumstances that might create adverse employment decisions that may qualify as discriminatory. In order for any of these actions to be illegal under the law, it must be clear that they were taken for discriminatory reasons. 

Oftentimes, discrimination in the workplace can be recognized by an employer or a coworker’s adverse action towards you that adversely impacts your job performance and/or employment status. If such behavior is observed with compelling evidence to prove it, then it presents as a clear case of workplace discrimination.

This includes but is not limited to actions such as:

  • Being denied a job
  • Being denied a promotion or a pay raise
  • Demotion or change in job duties
  • Having your hours or wages cut
  • Being fired (wrongful termination)

Generally, it does not include being indiscriminately criticized without risking your job or other forms of unjust treatment.

Was discrimination a “substantial motivating factor”? 

The anti-discrimination laws require a Plaintiff to show that the conduct they suffered was substantially motivated by discriminatory reasons. Thus, discriminatory intent must be a “substantial motivating reason” for that conduct. California Civil Jury Instructions CACI 2507

A substantial motivating reason is “a reason that actually contributed” to the unlawful conduct you faced. For instance, if you were terminated from your employment, a substantial motivating reason would be termination on grounds of a disability you suffered or for purposes of retaliation. 

However, the discriminatory reason must not be remote or trivial. It need not be the only reason why you were exposed to that conduct either. It is enough if you can show a “causal connection” between the adverse act you suffered and your protected status. Mixon v. Fair Employment and Housing Com. (1987) 192 Cal.App.3d 1306, 1319 [237 Cal.Rptr. 884]

Did you suffer harm due to the action?

Finally, showing that you were subjected to discriminatory conduct by your employer will not be sufficient on its own. You must go further to show how you were harmed by the conduct of your employer, supervisor, or co-workers. But what amounts to harm? 

A worker suffers harm if they were exposed to negative financial or other consequences as a result of the wrongful conduct. An example of negative consequences is losing a job for discriminatory reasons and not being able to find employment for several months afterward. Another example is being denied benefits, career advancement opportunities, or other financial advantages because of discriminatory conduct. 

After showing the harm you suffered, you may be able to recover for the financial loss you suffered, as well as the negative conduct you were exposed to. In all, obtaining protection and compensation under the anti-discrimination laws depends on being able to show how you are covered under the law, suffered adverse employment action, and experienced harm as a result. 

To fully understand if your circumstances come within those contemplated by law, contact our Riverside workplace discrimination attorneys at Employment Attorney Group for help. 

What Classes are Protected from Discrimination?

Everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law, regardless of their characteristics which could potentially make them vulnerable to discrimination. Through federal and state laws, individuals are safeguarded from such injustices through recognition as members in ‘protected classes.’

You are legally considered part of a protected class if you are discriminated against due to any of the following characteristics:

  • Your race
  • Your gender
  • Your religion
  • Your sexual orientation
  • Your disability (permanent or temporary)
  • Your age (over 40)
  • Your pregnancy
  • Your ethnicity

Your employer is legally obligated to treat you with respect, regardless of your membership in any protected class. Any negative actions taken against you due to your identity or affiliation are strictly prohibited and punishable under the law.

Is Discrimination Illegal in the Workplace?

It depends. Discrimination is considered illegal when the action taken against an employee is based on their membership in a protected class. This means that employers and coworkers cannot make decisions or take action against someone based on race, religion, gender, etc.

If you believe you have been the victim of discrimination and you live in California, please speak with one of our California workplace discrimination attorneys.

What is Harassment?

According to the EEOC, workplace harassment is defined as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” These unwelcome behaviors can be either physical or verbal and they are considered illegal if they create a hostile working environment.

Victims of harassment usually find themselves singled out by their peers or superiors, often in a hostile and intimidating manner. This may include insults, jokes, name-calling, threats, or any other behavior meant to discredit or hurt the individual.

Is Harassment Illegal in the Workplace?

Absolutely, harassment is an unlawful form of employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) from 1990.

If you are in California and feel you are being harassed or discriminated against on the job, please contact one of our California workplace harassment attorneys today.

We will help protect your right to a safe and respectful working environment.

Discrimination and Harassment in Nutshell:

  • In a discrimination lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove they experienced an adverse employment action or other unlawful conduct.
  • Adverse employment action is any action or pattern of conduct that materially and adversely affects the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.
  • Examples of adverse employment actions include denying fair pay, refusing promotion, terminating employment, and adopting discriminatory workplace policies.
  • Discriminatory intent must be a substantial motivating reason for the adverse action, and the plaintiff must show a causal connection between the action and their protected status.
  • The plaintiff must also show how they were harmed by the discriminatory conduct, which could include negative financial consequences or being denied career advancement opportunities or benefits.

If you believe you may be victim of discrimination, our team of experienced attorneys at Eldessouky Law is here to help. To obtain protection and compensation under anti-discrimination laws, it’s important to understand whether your circumstances fall under the law and to seek the advice of an experienced trial attorney. To determine whether you have a valid discrimination case, it’s important to consider the following factors:

  • Adverse employment action: This includes any action or pattern of conduct that materially and adversely affects the terms, conditions, or privileges of your employment. Examples of adverse employment actions include being denied a promotion or fair pay due to your protected status, or being terminated, demoted, or transferred to a less favorable position due to discriminatory reasons.
  • Discriminatory intent: You must show that the conduct you suffered was substantially motivated by discriminatory reasons. Discriminatory intent must be a substantial motivating reason for the conduct, but it need not be the only reason. You must show a causal connection between the adverse act you suffered and your protected status. What this means that the Employer cannot point to any other substantial reason for the actions taken against you such as performance, layoffs, plant closing, or other unrelated events to your protected class.
  • Harm: To have a valid discrimination case, you must show that you suffered harm because of the wrongful conduct, such as losing a job, being denied benefits or career advancement opportunities, or experiencing negative financial consequences. In most cases the harm will fall into two categories – lost wages (the money you no longer make) and emotional distress.

We’re here to help you understand your legal rights and options, and we’ll work tirelessly to help you obtain the compensation and justice that you deserve. All consultations are free and confidential.

Are You a Victim of Discrimination or Harassment in the Workplace?

If you think that you have been a victim of discrimination or harassment at work, it’s important to take action and protect your rights. Reach out to our qualified team of California employment attorneys today for comprehensive legal advice and support.

We can help determine if the behavior is illegal and how you can protect yourself from further discrimination or harassment. We’ll also provide advice and assistance on how to best take action against the offending party in a way that is both reasonable and lawful.

We are available for video conference calls

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