Coping with Discrimination

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One only has to check the EEOC web site to know that in spite of laws and significant progress against discrimination in the U.S. workplace, it is still pervasive. If you feel that you have been a victim of discrimination, there are actions you can take to gather data and protect yourself.

Identifying If You Have Been Discriminated Against

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Knowing Your Workplace Rights

Depending on the size of your employer, where you live in, and your profession, you may be entitled to certain legal protections in the workplace, including:

  • The right not be discriminated against because of your race, national origin, skin color, gender, pregnancy, religious beliefs, disability, or age (and in some countries, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other characteristics).
  • The right to work in an environment free of harassment.
  • Fair pay; to be paid at least the minimum wage, plus, for some job classifications, an overtime premium for any hours worked over forty in one week (or, in some places, over eight hours in one day).
  • A safe workplace.
  • The right to take leave to care for your own or a family member’s serious health condition, or following the birth or adoption of a child.

Potential Signs of Discrimination

Demographics:  If where you live — and the industry in which you work — have a high percentage of a particular ethnic group, but its members are not hired, this could indicate institutional racism.

Promotions: If specific ethnic groups are not being awarded promotions despite having apparent qualifications and getting good interviews, this could be a sign of discrimination. However, you would have to try to discern whether the particular ethnic groups’ individuals are the best candidates for the promotional opportunities.

High Turnover for Minorities:  If members of a particular ethnic group are experiencing high turnover, this can indicate that the environment is not conducive to diversity, and can suggest discrimination.

Wage Discrimination.  A wage survey could determine if there is discrimination in the wages offered to a particular group of employees. Any differences should be normalized based on education levels, experience and work performance. Once accomplished, wages should be similar. It is possible that some employers offer less to members of certain groups — no matter what their qualifications are.

Individual Stories and Experiences: Often colleagues who have submitted bids for a job posting will compare notes once the job has been awarded.

Examples of Potential Discrimination

Below are several examples that may be indicative of workplace discrimination:

  • For the same infraction, one employee receives a warning, whereas another is fired.
  • At a large retail company, saleswomen are paid less per hour for work in the same job description as salesmen.
  • Engineers over age fifty at an aerospace company are not invited to training programs for new technology.
  • A computer programmer who became blind is not provided screen reader equipment by her employer.

Finally, find and read your organization’s discrimination and complaint policy, if one exists.

Methods of Reprisal

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Reprisal is retaliation for an injury with the intent of inflicting at least as much injury in return. Retaliation occurs when an employer, employment agency, or labor organization takes an adverse action against a covered individual because he or she engaged in a protected activity.

The EEOC ( describes retaliation as follows: “An employer may not fire, demote, harass, or otherwise “retaliate” against an individual for filing a charge of discrimination, participating in a discrimination proceeding, or otherwise opposing discrimination. The same laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, and disability, as well as wage differences between men and women performing substantially equal work, also prohibit retaliation against individuals who oppose unlawful discrimination or participate in an employment discrimination proceeding.”  Examples include:

  • Termination or disciplinary action
  • Denying a promotion for which the employee was in line
  • Threatening the employee who files the complaint
  • Assigning more unfavorable tasks or duties than was normal for the employee previous to filing the charge, or than are currently normal for other employees
  • Giving the employee a poor performance review after the charge is filed, especially when previous performance evaluations were positive
  • Failing to give a raise otherwise due, such as a seniority raise
  • Refusing to communicate with the employee
  • Providing close supervision, especially if it was absent before
  • Enforcing work rules previously not enforced — or loosely enforced
  • Encouraging other employees to shun the person
  • Making jokes or comments about anything related to discrimination
  • Moralizing, criticizing, or implying disappointment for filing a charge
  • Any other action such as an assault or unfounded civil or criminal charges which are likely to deter reasonable people from pursuing their rights.

Choosing a Course of Action

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If you suspect that you are being discriminated against, gather and write down answers to the following questions:

  • Where did the alleged discrimination event occur?
  • Who allegedly discriminated against you? Your boss? A co-worker? Someone else in the organization?
  • What did the person do or say to you that were different from how he or she treated others?
  • Why do you believe that a person discriminated against you? Are you able to make a clear link between his or her actions or words — and your protected status?

Document the Problem

  • Gather documentation: Take careful notes of key conversations and events. Note the time, date, and names of others who were present. If there are legitimate documents to which you legally have access that support your position, assemble them.  These might include company policies, offer letters, performance reviews, memoranda, emails and other correspondence, and your employee handbook.
  • Talk with your coworkers: If they witnessed any contributory events, enlist their support by asking them to document, sign, and date their observation or what they heard.

Know Your Rights and legal deadlines

  • The more you know about your legal rights in the workplace, the more confident you will be in presenting your problem. Check the EEOC web site, and your state’s Department of Labor web site. Find the appropriate law (Title VII, ADA, ADEA, and EPA) which has potentially been infringed.
  • You may wish to explore a mediation and arbitration solution, also known as Alternative Dispute Resolution — or ADR.
  • State laws set deadlines called statutes of limitation which vary, depending upon the type of action occurred. If your employer doesn’t take action within a reasonable time frame, or if you are demoted or fired, consider whether to take legal action. Consulting an attorney is an option to learn about the strength of your claim, what deadlines apply, and what remedies may be available to you.

Ask for a Meeting with your employer

  • Understand the grievance procedure/appeal process. Obtain a written copy of the grievance/appeal process from your employer.
  • Have a Discussion With Your Employer. This opens the opportunity to air differences. The problem may stem from an oversight, a misunderstanding, or a lack of legal knowledge. Most companies want to stay within the law and do the right thing.
  • Stick to the facts. Before meeting with your employer, write a brief summary of what has gone wrong and your recommendation for resolving the problem. It might help to have someone more objective, such as a friend or family member, review the facts, and brainstorm with you about possible resolutions. Make sure not to leave any important facts out.
  • Remain calm. Dealing with a workplace problem can be stressful, but unfounded accusations and emotional outbursts won’t help you get your point across or make you feel better. Practice your presentation ahead of time to make sure you can remain professional — and calm.
  • Work toward next steps. You want to gain agreement about what will happen next. Will the company investigate the problem? Will your boss talk to your coworkers or supervisor? What will happen to performance evaluations, job responsibilities, or reporting relationships during the process?
  • Follow up. Once you have spoken to your employer, make sure to follow up on the meeting. If your employer promised to investigate the matter or talk with other employees, check back to find out the status of those actions. After a few weeks have passed, schedule another meeting with your employer to discuss what progress has been made in resolving your problem.
  • Understand Termination. If you are being fired from your job, ask for the reasons for your dismissal and ask that the reasons be put in writing.


If you resign your position, challenging a discrimination action is much more difficult.

Module Eight: Case Study

Ali knocked on the door of his co-worker’s office.

Sophia answered it. “Hi, Ali. What’s up? Come on in. I’m on a break.”

Ali said, “Sophia, I need your help with something. I think I’m being discriminated against here in the office.”

Sophia remembered at their last diversity training that when an employee goes to their supervisor, the supervisor needs to keep the matter confidential. While Sophia wasn’t a supervisor, she shut the door behind them to give him confidentiality.

Ali said, “Do I need to tell my supervisor? Should I go to human resources? Do I need to call a lawyer?”

Sophia said, “Well, first, let’s take a look at our company’s discrimination and complaint policy.”

Ali asked, “Do you have a copy?”

“Yes, I asked for one after our last training.”

They went over the policy, and Ali took the next step needed in the process.