It's Time To End Discrimination in the Workplace: Here's How

How do you know when you or a co-worker have been the subject of workplace discrimination? In its most common format, discrimination in the workplace can refer to discriminatory practices with hiring or firing but there are other times it happens as well. If you’ve experienced unfair treatment due to your age, gender identity, national origin, or race — it’s discrimination. 

There are many anti-discrimination laws put in place to protect employees from employer retaliation for speaking up when they make discrimination claims. Yet despite these federal laws, it's a widespread and subversive issue.

I'm going to explain what acts of workplace discrimination are, the ways they can affect work, and how leaders can stop them.

What Is Discrimination in the Workplace?

Discrimination in the workplace is when an employee or potential employee of a protected class is treated unfairly.

Federally protected classes may exist due to their:

  • Race
  • Citizenship
  • Skin color
  • Religion
  • National origin 
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation or transgender status
  • Age
  • Mental ability
  • Physical ability
  • Veteran status
  • Pregnancy status 
  • Marital status
  • Genetic information

Though discriminatory practices are illegal, they are still prevalent in the United States. In 2019, the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) reported racism (33%), disability discrimination (33.4%), and sexism (32.4%) as the most commonly reported categories of workplace discrimination charges.

Examples of workplace discrimination:

  • Requesting a preferred gender in job descriptions
  • Denying an employee of benefits for discriminatory reasons
  • Isolating members of a protected class or group when making layoffs
  • Making a hiring decision based on sexual orientation
  • Excluding certain members of a protected class from workplace discussions
  • Not being paid the same wage as someone at the same professional level doing the same job
  • Not hiring a job applicant because they're pregnant 
  • Not promoting someone because they have a family
  • Derogatory comments/stereotypes aimed at a member of a protected class classified as "humor"
  • Gaslighting an employee’s experience when filing a workplace discrimination claim — for example, by calling them “sensitive” or “a wet blanket” as if to normalize the behavior

5 Federal Laws Created To Combat Employment Discrimination

discrimination in the workplace: Attractive female colleagues discussing project and leaning on table

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency that enforces employment laws to prevent discrimination in the workplace. Here are a few listed on their website:

  1. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA): This law has allowed more women to continue to work while pregnant. It was enacted on October 31, 1978, to protect pregnant women from discriminatory acts or other medical conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth.
  2. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Signed into law on July 26, 1990, this law guarantees people with disabilities the same rights to employment opportunities. To be protected, the physical or mental disability must be defined by the ADA as a life-altering or limiting condition.
  3. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA): Age discrimination is when a job applicant is treated differently based on their age. The ADEA protects workers over the age of 40 and does not protect younger workers. This act specifically protects older workers against discriminatory employment practices within the hiring process as well as promotions, training, benefits, and lay-offs.
  4. The Equal Pay Act of 1963: Enacted on June 10th, 1963, this is a United States labor law that aims to abolish wage disparity based on sex. This act makes it illegal to retaliate against an employee for complaining about, opposing, or refusing to participate in a real or perceived discriminatory act. It also protects anyone planning to file a discrimination claim or discrimination lawsuit or those helping another employee to do so.
  5. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: In Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, No. 17-1618, enacted on June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled to protect employees from sex-based discrimination in relation to gender identity, sexual orientation, or transgender status

The Impact of Discrimination in the Workplace

The longer discriminatory behavior continues, the more it can create a hostile work environment for the employee. In order to better understand how discrimination may go undetected, we need to look at discrimination in more detail.

Direct Discrimination vs. Indirect Discrimination

The biggest issue with workplace discrimination is it isn't always easy to detect. Often, employees fear filing a discrimination case due to potential retaliation.

Direct discrimination is when someone treats others differently because of their protected class. There are a number of stereotypes that can lead to discriminatory comments and behaviors that are direct and obvious.

Indirect discrimination is when a policy inadvertently neglects or disadvantages a group or member of a protected class. This could refer to a strict dress code policy that prohibits head dressings like turbans or hairstyles like dreadlocks at work.

Discrimination vs. Harassment

While both behaviors have the potential to damage an employee's professional experience and well-being, there are slight differences between discrimination and harassment.

  • Discrimination: As we've been covering, this is when an employee or job applicant is treated unjustly due to their belonging to a protected class. In this case, mistreatment is not always obvious or direct.
  • Harassment: This behavior is classified as direct humiliation or threatening actions intentionally to disempower someone in the workplace. When a manager, client, or superior is responsible for harassment, including sexual harassment, it makes it difficult for employees to come forward even though it can be detrimental to their ability to perform.

Creating Safe Workplaces

Disabled Manager Sitting With His Colleagues

It's not enough to have an equal opportunity employer statement in job descriptions. While it's important to take an active stance on diversity in the workplace, job applicants need to experience an unbiased approach to hiring firsthand.

As talent acquisition and human resources leaders, we know firsthand the benefits of a diverse talent pool. The statistics are astonishing: 

  • McKinsey's research, which is based in Latin America, confirms that "employees in companies committed to diversity are about 150 percent more likely to report that they can propose new ideas and try new ways of doing things."
  • Deloitte reports employees who feel part of an organization that supports diversity initiatives show improvements as great as an 83% boost in innovation, a 31% boost in responsiveness, and a 42% increase in team collaboration.
  • A Cloverpop study of 184 teams over two years confirms that teams with a high level of diversity "make better decisions 87% of the time.”

If you've been following the blog, my post on gender inequality in the workplace makes it clear that we still have a ways to go to ensure fair employment and equal pay for men and women. That's just one of many protected classes facing discrimination. So, when thinking about multiple forms of workplace discrimination, what can we do to help?

Suggested steps for HR leaders:

  • Revise company policies to reflect more inclusive language: Test it, and ask members of your team whether the language appropriately addresses them.
  • Build safe spaces for difficult conversations on race, gender, physical, and mental ability: Direct and indirect discrimination can be equally intimidating. Bring in subject matter experts from diverse backgrounds who can educate employees to better understand how their behavior is problematic and why it’s unacceptable. 
  • Hire third parties to handle discrimination claims: Employees experiencing discrimination may not feel comfortable discussing it internally. Providing a third-party avenue could encourage more people to speak up about their experience. 
  • Use data to uncover diversity gaps: Learn about your lack of diversity and share it transparently within the organization so there is no confusion about what needs to change.
  • Test your tech for bias: Technology has become a big part of the recruitment and hiring process. Test for bias when choosing new candidates.
  • Use Searchlight for hiring: Our platform is committed to increasing diversity in the best and simplest way with objective reference data. Eighty percent of our partners have reported an increase in hiring top performers from underrepresented backgrounds.

Prevent Discrimination in the Workplace

We don’t always know workplace discrimination is happening, especially when it’s not overt. Even with the laws in place to protect employees, many members of protected classes don’t feel safe to express issues. To stop workplace discrimination, relevant HR policies and procedures are crucial.

We can’t fix a problem that we don’t acknowledge we have. Share the benefits of managing diversity with leadership, and commit yourself to the work required to recognize what prevents progress — your current and future team will thank you.

Want to hire more high performers and increase retention?

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