Unfortunately, workplace discrimination is still common, based on race, sex, and other factors—despite its clear illegality. If you feel you’re facing workplace discrimination, you may have legal recourse. After talking with an employment discrimination lawyer, you may decide you’re in a place to file suit against your former employer. In other, more minor cases, you may be able to work things out with your HR department and discipline or completely get rid of the people responsible for the problem.
The big question is, are you experiencing real workplace discrimination? Or is your experience something else entirely?
What Is Workplace Discrimination?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it absolutely illegal to engage in discriminatory practices based on a person’s color, race, religion, sex, or national origin. Additionally, the Supreme Court has established that LGBTQ employees are also protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Discriminatory activities may occur in hiring, discharge, promotion, referral, and other areas of employment.
You may be fired or refused a promotion at your job for non-discriminatory reasons. So how can you tell if it was discriminatory?
This is a gray area that can be difficult to parse, but these signs can help you establish whether or not this environment is discriminatory:
- Stated preferences or goals. One of the most obvious signs of discrimination is stated preferences or goals when hiring, promoting, or conducting other activities with employees. For example, if a job posting states that men are preferred, it’s discriminatory. This is usually easy to catch, and is blatantly illegal, so you won’t find it often.
- Lack of diversity. More commonly, you can notice discriminatory practices because of a lack of diversity. If you’re working in a company with 100 people and 99 of them are white men around the same age, it’s an indication that white men are preferred over other types of people. Sometimes, this is a natural byproduct of the types of people who apply; but other times, it’s reflective of hiring preferences.
- Trends across roles. You may also notice a trend in hiring, promoting, or retention for certain roles. For example, if all the women in your company are secretaries and only men are mid- to upper-level managers, it’s a sign that only men are being promoted.
- Unequal rewards or punishments. Be on the lookout for unusual or unequal rewards and punishments. For example, let’s say you and a person of a different race, color, etc., are both up for a promotion. You’re the superior candidate in every way; you’ve been there longer, you get better results, you work harder, and you’ve demonstrated more ambition. The other person gets the promotion, with no further explanation why. Similarly, you may be punished more harshly for mistakes (or even for no reason at all) when compared to your other coworkers.
- Condescending or distancing communication. You can also notice discrimination in your ongoing communication with managers and supervisors. If people seem condescending to you, or if they try to distance themselves from you, it’s a sign they may be discriminatory—especially in combination with the other signs on this list.
- Harassment. Though harassment and discrimination are treated as separate issues in many cases, harassment is a form of discrimination. If you find yourself harassed for your race, color, sex, religion, national origin, sexuality, or other factors, you almost certainly have legal recourse. Take note of these instances when they occur.
Understand that if you’re going to take action against your employer, you’re going to need to prove that discrimination has occurred—you can’t take legal action based on a “gut feeling.” If possible, gather all the evidence you can prior to seeking action. Archive emails containing condescending or unusual language. Record your meetings with your employers. Get copies of your personnel records. Make detailed descriptions of which people are in which positions. Your lawyer or HR representative may be able to direct you further.
If you feel you’re being discriminated against and you’ve gathered some preliminary evidence, a good first step to take is to talk with your HR department (if there is one). Explain your concerns, providing evidence if requested, and insist on corrective action. Your HR rep may or may not be able to provide you with an action plan on how to move forward. If your request is ignored or not taken seriously, you’ll have no choice but to escalate the matter.
From there, talk to a lawyer about potentially taking legal action. Most workplace discrimination lawyers will be happy to hear the details of your case for free, and advise you on how to proceed. If you decide to move forward, you may be able to bring a legal case against your employer.