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Understanding Disparate Impact, Adverse Impact, vs Disparate Treatment

Definition of Disparate Impact, Adverse Impact, Disparate Treatment and Protected class meaning

Starting from the last century, the United States has made great strides in fighting discrimination and promoting social equality in all races and classes. You cannot accomplish diversity and inclusion without understanding disparate impacts and disparate treatments. The battle against social inequality is far from over and sometimes marked by controversies. The country, however, has a gone a long way, promoting equality and harmony, and tearing down the walls that divide people.

Legislations have been passed to make sure that discrimination and discriminatory practices become a thing of the past. This development is certainly commendable. But some practices, though legal, still smacks of discrimination, and have adverse and negative effects on race, classes, and gender. These practices can be classified as disparate impact.

What is the disparate impact?

Disparate impact is practices that result in unintentional discrimination. By practices, it means those ways, means, and policies in a particular company, corporation, work, or employment. These requirements are perfectly legal but construed in a way that could result in discrimination or the prevalence of discriminatory practices.

These discriminatory practices are not in itself a policy, far from it. They are, however, embedded in the very way policies are construed, made, and implemented. Though there is nothing wrong with those policies as far as legalities and battling discrimination is concerned, those policies affect negatively, those who belong to the “protected class.”

An example of this is physical examinations concerning work. Some employment requires that the employees or workers pass certain physical examinations or tests. A physical examination, however, can prejudice a particular gender, age, or ethnicity. The very existence, therefore, of a physical examination may preclude the of hiring members of a particular group.

What is an adverse impact?

The example cited above of a practice that may unintentionally discriminate against members of a social group, ethnicity, or class, is an example of adverse impact. Adverse impact is the negative or the adverse effect of a practise or policy in members of a social group or class that should have been protected from discrimination in the first place.

Disparate impact and adverse impact, most of the time, are used interchangeably. This is because both are results of unintentional discriminatory practices. As a phenomenon, both are experienced by groups that should have been protected from discrimination. Disparate impact, however, is a legal concept, ff which adverse impact is one of the elements.

Adverse impact is the direct result of disparate impact. Overall, both are products of the systemic discrimination that is embedded in society. The discrimination which is prohibited by law persists in these kinds of practices and policies.

They remain and persist because the discriminatory practices looked neutral, and in some cases, even necessary. The law only explicitly states that there should be no discrimination in terms of hiring, employment, benefits, and rights, and it is followed.

Policies, however, are formulated by people who, one way or another, may still have biases against a particular class or group. Or at best, they are just unresponsive to the needs of those people. The lack of responsiveness, as well as the bias, may found its way in the formulation of those policies, as well as in the actual conduct of most people in the workplace.

The policies seem neutral because they are formulated, first, as a policy for all, and second, formulated with the anti-discrimination laws and practices in mind.

That being the case, seemingly neutral practices, in closer inspection, actually has adverse and detrimental effects against those who should have been protected. And unlike in actual discrimination, some of these practices do have legal cover and have to be proven convincingly in authorities, or courts of law.

What is a Protected Class?

Connected to the concept of disparate impact and adverse impact, is the concept of a protected class. A protected class is a group or class, either of race, minorities, gender, age, and others, that needs to be protected from forms of discrimination and other discriminatory practices. They are mostly victims of discrimination and prevailing social inequality.

The concept of a protected class stems from the idea that certain groups are underprivileged, and that society needs to address the problem, or at least balance the situation. This can be done through laws and legislation that will give them protection from discrimination. It will also allow for equal opportunity in terms of employment and other benefits, like housing.

Categorization of a protected class does not mean that a group is given special privileges or being accorded rights not available to others. It only means that a particular class must be given protection, and that attention must be given to them to shield them from discrimination. A protected class, therefore, is not a privileged class.

Despite laws and legislation, however, members of the protective class still suffer from discrimination, unintentional or otherwise. It is this class that suffers from the phenomenon of disparate impact. As mentioned, they can still be victims of disparate impact and adverse impact because discriminatory practices still prevail despite, and even under the cover of law.

Disparate impact vs disparate treatment

Unintentional discrimination is the hallmark of disparate impact. As such, the problem can be addressed by pointing out the adverse impacts and effects of those policies and practices. One way is to show explicitly how a policy or practice directly impacts the protected class. This could be shown by statistics and other evidence that will prove the occurrence of disparate impact.

One way to show disparate impact in employment and others is to show instances of disparate treatment. Disparate treatment is an act that shows that one is treated differently, or treated worse than others, by belonging to a particular protected class. In short, by showing that one is being discriminated against.

The difference between disparate impact and disparate treatment is that in the former, policies may unintentionally discriminate against members of the protected group. In disparate treatment, protected groups are intentionally being discriminated against using policies that are supposed to be legal and neutral.

An example may suffice. Two workers committed a violation, but the circumstances and nature of the offense are the same. The violation merits a suspension, but the other one, however, was fired. If the one that is fired belongs to a particular protected class, this constitutes disparate treatment. The same violation and circumstances must merit the same punishment.

One can go to the court of law to seek redress. But these kinds of incidents abound and are prevalent throughout the country. Despite laws and campaigns towards equality, it is sad that discriminatory practices persist in society, especially in the workplace.

Disparate Impact and Treatment Resources

Best Videos about Disparate Impact

Best Adverse Impact Videos


The U.S. government and institutions have made progress in combatting discrimination, preventing discriminatory practices, and promoting equality among people, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. As a whole, the nation has made great strides to finally end inequality by providing equal rights and opportunities for everyone.

Discriminatory practices, however, are still prevalent in our society, more so in employment and the workplace. Disparate impact is still common, and it affects and afflicts those who belonged to the protected class. Laws are in place to end discrimination, but biases common to individuals and groups remain and found their way to the policies and practices of some companies.

But the drive towards equality is more intense and greater than ever, such as discrimination across culture and gender, and other diversity types. Fighting disparate treatment, in all its forms, will reduce the incidences of disparate impact. Everyone must remain aware of the rights accorded to everyone else and must protect it. We must be aware of violations too, and make sure that the aggrieved be given justice and be properly compensated.

Disparate Impact and Discrimination

Disparate Impact definition
Disparate Treatment definition
Adverse Impact Definition
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About the author

Susanne Ricee

Susanne Ricee is the Diversity and Inclusion Specialist and Researcher at Diversity for Social Impact. Sue brings over 15 years of HR and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion consultation experience.
Sue's previous experience includes Microsoft, Target, and Kraft. Sue is also the manager of Diversity Leadership Directory