When one experiences workplace discrimination, it can be disheartening. For the victim, lost income, reduced work productivity and dissatisfaction, isolation, stress, and unemployment or underemployment often result. Places where workplace discrimination occurs frequently suffer from low employee morale, high turnover, and unfavorable productivity. Since work is an important part of true inclusion in our society, one must highlight how workplace discrimination divides and marginalizes people, both as individuals and groups.
What is Illegal Workplace Discrimination?
To count as discrimination in the legal sense, actions must violate legal protections. All U.S. workers are protected by federal law, which specifically forbids discrimination based on color, national origin, race, religion, sex, mental or physical disability, genetic information, pregnancy, or parenthood.
State laws also protect workers from discrimination based on those characteristics, plus other ones enacted by state legislatures. For example, many states have laws forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation. Also, many cities have laws that specifically prohibit other forms of workplace discrimination.
What are the Signs of Workplace Discrimination?
Signs of workplace discrimination may be overt and/or subtle. For example, a boss directly hinging a promotion on sexual favors would be overt sexual discrimination and harassment. A boss hinting about sexual favors and then claiming an employee who didn’t respond has poor work performance would be a more subtle form of sexual discrimination and harassment.
While overt signs of workplace discrimination are clear, subtle signs often start with small phenomena and then increase over time, frequently engendering a hostile and unhealthy atmosphere. Subtle signs often reveal themselves as patterns. For example, a male employee may make increasingly offensive comments about a female coworker after she refused to date him. The comments may begin as ones open to interpretation, but, over time, the harasser continues the pattern while his comments grow increasingly offensive, which constitutes a clear case of sexual harassment.
Signs of workplace discrimination often manifest themselves in adverse actions taken against an employee. Adverse actions include disciplinary action, failure to promote, demotion, unlawful retaliation, failure to accommodate protected leave, and wrongful termination. Because of equal opportunity employment safeguards, when an adverse action is taken on the basis of a protected characteristic, bad actors usually try to camouflage their discriminatory conduct by claiming a pretext for the adverse action.
A manager, for example, may refuse to promote a woman who earned a higher position because he thinks women are inferior leaders, which violates the law. To cover his tracks, he may give her an unjustified poor performance review and then use it as a pretext to deny the promotion. An adverse action paired with a pretext is a conspicuous sign of discrimination.
What Should Discrimination Victims Do about It?
Though a natural fear of rocking the proverbial boat can emerge, discrimination victims should contact their organization’s human resources department or a company manager. Once the employee has notified the human resources director, the company becomes obligated to investigate and correct any illegal discrimination. In many organizations, this solves the problem; in others, unfortunately, it yields no real change. Human resources departments are to intervene in ways that protect victims and rectify their problems.
In other organizations, investigations may favor the harasser because of power dynamics, politics, and other reasons. In this case, victims should consult an employment lawyer immediately. An employment attorney can inform victims about options available.
Victims of discrimination can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and/or their state’s Department of Human Rights. These agencies will investigate and attempt to settle the matter. If the matter cannot be settled by the agencies, victims can file a lawsuit in state or federal court.
Dr. Antonio Maurice Daniels
University of Wisconsin-Madison