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Discrimination in the Workplace: How to Recognize, Protest, and Prevent It

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A woman engineer—equally, if not better qualified than her male counterparts—was told she couldn’t meet with clients because they “expected” a male engineer. A highly competent black secretary was fired during a layoff even though two white secretaries received constant complaints from their bosses and spent most of their time creating chaos. The excuse given was, “I don’t want to train someone new.” A new employee who walked with crutches was promised a ground-level office close to the people she needed to interact with the most—and the office never materialized. The employee quit rather than continue to struggle for months.

Discrimination wears many disguises and is difficult to combat. Discrimination in the workplace reflects discrimination in society but also adds to it by denying them jobs, inclusion, and training that lead to higher pay, greater respect, and more opportunities. Any minority—by race, gender, disability, religion, or background—can be discriminated against institutionally simply by making easier and more familiar choices and assumptions.

Discrimination in the workplace is a source of stress both for the people discriminated against and those around them who observe the discrimination. Even the anticipation of discrimination is a source of fear and stress. Emotional support from family and friends is an important bulwark against stress, but what are workplaces doing, and what can you do to combat discrimination to start with—against yourself or other individuals?

Perception of Discrimination in the Workplace

As in society at large, the perception of discrimination depends on your background and status. For example, according to various surveys, up to 75% of male employees believe that their company promotes everyone fairly; only 43% of female employees and 40% of black workers agree. In a 2017 survey by Pew Research Center, 70% of white workers and only 37% of black workers believe their employers do enough to increase diversity.

Fighting discrimination through the legal system is tricky at best. Take the case of disabilities in the workplace. When discrimination is alleged, the US Equal Employment Opportunities Commission is more likely to stand up for individuals with undocumented disabilities than for those with documented disabilities—following the prejudice that a documented disability reduces a person’s life-long ability to meet work standards.

Here are some of the discriminatory beliefs and prejudices about groups who experience discrimination:

  • They are all lazy and haven’t worked as hard as others to achieve goals.
  • They are more emotional; you can’t predict how they’ll react.
  • They don’t have an education at a prestigious university, so they must be less intelligent.
  • They don’t mind being isolated—it saves them embarrassment, and they prefer to bond with their own group.
  • Accommodating their differences (this includes disability, age, and religion) requires too much money and time.
  • They think they deserve special treatment and expect everyone to approve of their lifestyle/habits/ideas.
  • They do not realize their limitations and the situation; they need protection and help, even when they don’t ask for it.
  • They are less dedicated; they don’t want to take on more responsibilities.
  • They are used to poor conditions and low pay; they should be grateful for whatever they get.
  • They aren’t as dedicated.

Suppose you recognize any of those attitudes in yourself or feel a need to justify them in relation to any group. In that case, you are contributing to a workplace culture of fear, lack of trust, and dysfunction—and likely breaking both moral and federal law.

TIP: The examples above concentrate on the explicit bias. Implicit bias is hard to detect in yourself. If you try to treat everyone fairly and with respect, and if you recognize that we all have prejudices and you are not the one exception, then you are heading in the right direction.

Dealing with Your Own Experience of Discrimination

If you are being discriminated against, start a paper trail at work immediately. Keep a record of the disagreeable jokes, the discriminatory behaviors, and any information you can glean about inequalities in pay and advancement opportunities. If you are harassed with items (offensive pictures or objects) or acts (slashed tires, a disturbed desk), keep the items or take a photo so that you have proof.

Face the realities of discrimination and build an emergency fund. You are more likely to be fired or further discriminated against if you make even well-founded allegations. Hiring a lawyer may also stretch your finances—and your resilience. You will need all your SMaRT strategies, especially grit and courage, and assertiveness, to see the situation through no matter what course you take.

Try to find an accommodation that will allow you to continue working without an atmosphere of discrimination. For example, if do not share the religion of everyone else in the group but are asked to participate in a morning prayer, ask if you may remain silently respectful if the prayer might be made more generic, if different religions might be celebrated on different days, or if you might arrive at work after the prayer session.

If you decide to complain about the discrimination, talk to your manager, then to Human Resources. Read up on your company’s discrimination policies and be aware of state and federal law. If possible, go to the meeting as part of a group who also suffer from or witnessed the discrimination.

Suppose you decide to file with your state employment agency or the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), file within 180 days of when the discrimination took place. The EEOC will investigate earlier incidents, but they will reject your case if you wait too long, even if you were trying to work with your employer to settle the issue. You can find out more at the EEOC website.

What about talking directly to the person (or group) who has discriminated against you? This tactic may or may not work depending on the deliberateness and depth of the discrimination. You could, for example, simply mention to the friendliest member of your team that you would like to join them for lunch next time they go out. They might have excluded you in the past because they thought you had your own lunchtime group or preferred to work through lunch—that type of discriminatory assumption is easily rectified.

More difficult is a situation where “jokes” or tones are discriminatory, and the individual or group is clearly hostile. In that case, any attempt to bridge the gap is likely to end in accusations that you can’t take a joke, are too emotional and sensitive or are harassing them. Again, this would be the time to get your manager or Human Resources involved.

TIP: Discrimination usually reveals itself early, even at the interview stage, with inappropriate questions and dismissive tones. Check online if a company has a reputation for discriminatory practices. Protect yourself (if you possibly can) by refusing to work for them.

Dealing with Someone Else’s Experience of Discrimination

Witnessing someone else’s discrimination or discriminatory behavior is stressful. The first step you can take is to call out the behavior, rally around the person being discriminated against, and serve as a source of support and affirmation. Recognizing discrimination requires emotional intelligence; fighting it requires stamina and courage.

Make accommodations where you can. One company asked all its employees to wear an emblem supporting the rights of a discriminated group. When two employees asked to be excused from wearing the emblem based on their religious beliefs (while remaining respectful in other ways), they were fired and are now suing. In this case, the employees were willing to compromise in a way that did not force their beliefs on anyone else, but the company decided to reject the accommodation and ended up being sued. Be careful in mandating the beliefs of others.

Build up your financial and emotional resources before you decide to be a whistleblower: retaliation is a common response to anyone who speaks up against discrimination. Know your company’s and governmental policies regarding retaliation; be aware, however, that whistleblowing and turning to the legal system can be ruinous to your finances, relationships, and career. Historically, retaliation complaints are the type of discriminatory claim most often filed with the EEOC, with a sexual, disability, and racial discrimination tied for 2nd place.

As a leader, you have the responsibility to build a functional team that rejects discriminatory behavior. But issues can still arise, within your team, when your team interacts with others, or in the company as a whole. Whether your team instigates, witnesses, or is a victim of discrimination, their level of stress will increase until it jeopardizes productivity, health, and relationships.

Educating your team about discrimination, focusing on diversity in your team, creating a formal policy against discrimination with consequences, communicating openly, and insisting on mutual respect are all good practices. You may need professional help to ensure that your team understands discrimination or to help them surmount the stress caused by witnessing or suffering discriminatory practices.

You should also make sure that training and other opportunities are offered without prejudice and without assumptions. Let the other party decide, for example, if a disability cannot be surmounted even with aid or if their religion will interfere with their enjoyment of a group meal. A fair and respectful treatment of everyone is the hallmark of an inclusive workplace.

TIP: Keep your personal beliefs personal and expect others to do the same. This rule applies to politics, religion, and other issues that may cause discrimination or harassment.

Key Takeaways

Discrimination is difficult to fight and eradicate, yet it quickly undermines a team and riddles it with conflict, dysfunction, and stress. As a leader, you set the moral and legal tone; have the opportunity to create an inclusive, diverse, and welcoming team; and are able to support those who must deal with the stress of prejudice in society and in the workplace.

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