How to Deal with Discrimination in the Workplace

Reviewed by Melina Theodorou

gender workplace discrimination concept with man and woman on scales

While great strides have been made to create laws that protect minority groups from being mistreated in the workplace, many people still face discrimination all too frequently. A quick search online can uncover shocking examples of racism and everyday sexism. 

Not all incidents make the headlines either. Every day, workers must deal with various prejudices in the workplace, including those against their race, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation or disability. They may have to endure snubs, slights, and inappropriate comments as well as lose out on jobs, coveted assignments or promotions.

If you've experienced discrimination, you may feel isolated, thinking you must either suffer in silence or quit your job. There are other options, however, and we've created this guide to help you deal with discrimination in the workplace

Even a few small actions can help create a safer and more productive work environment for you.

1. Address the Issue Directly

Over the years, workers have been repeatedly made aware of the issues of discrimination in the workplace. This can sometimes make it easier to deal with problems directly at the source. Bev White, an HR managing director, suggests: 'If a colleague makes an inappropriate remark, saying you don't appreciate them doing this can stop them in their tracks and make them think more carefully about their behaviour in the future. Refusing to give approval is like taking oxygen from a flame.'

Your coworkers may also need to be reminded that even small, seemingly innocuous comments can have big effects. A young colleague may think that calling you 'grandpa' is just a fun nickname, but the constant reminder to your bosses in a highly competitive sales job that you're 'the old guy' could affect their perception of your capabilities. If your colleague otherwise shows you respect, calmly explaining your side of the issue should make them drop the inappropriate nicknames immediately.

2. Document Everything

Because discrimination often occurs in subtle ways that build up over time, you may not be sure at first how to interpret or react to a colleague's or supervisor's actions. Start keeping detailed track of the incidents that made you uncomfortable. For example, a woman dealing with an unfortunately common workplace issue might record: '10-2021 – When going over my department totals during an emergency budget meeting, general manager Ralph Stenson said 'I'm surprised a woman that looks as good as you do could do these calculations so fast.' Department heads Elise Meyers, and Paulo Sanchez were also present.'

Compiling a list of events like these can help clarify the issue for you and others. Employment lawyer, Brian Heller, advises being as thorough as possible if you plan to make a complaint: 'Sometimes people will say: "It's just a gut feeling." What causes you to have that gut feeling? What can you point to?' For example, if you feel like management is discriminating against women regarding assignments or promotions, cataloguing the ongoing discriminatory comments you receive will help bolster your case.

3. Talk with Your Supervisor

Just as you would do for any issues with a difficult coworker, schedule a closed-door meeting with your immediate supervisor about the ongoing discrimination against you. It's not always easy to talk to your boss about issues that are as personal but do your best to stay calm and professional. Try a collaborative approach first, stressing what you want to accomplish at your job and why these comments, attitudes or actions are preventing you from succeeding. If your supervisor is part of the problem, take your concerns to their boss.

Management often reacts better when you have a possible solution ready to address the discriminatory environment. For example, a person experiencing disability discrimination might say, 'Every time Manu calls an impromptu meeting, he orders everyone upstairs to Room 12. My wheelchair is difficult to manoeuvre into the elevator, and then it takes me several minutes to get across the building to that room. It causes a disruption when I arrive, and everyone who's already there must try to make room for me to get by. I've also been reprimanded for lateness a few times now, despite explaining the difficulties of the location. If he would be willing to hold meetings down here in the larger conference room, I could easily attend on time, and we could all get immediately to work.'

Take notes on the discussion, even if it's relatively informal. If the situation isn't resolved in a reasonable amount of time, you'll have additional documentation to support an official complaint.

4. Consult the Company Policy Handbook

If subtler approaches to resolving discrimination at work haven't worked, it's a good idea to familiarise yourself with your employment contract and your rights as an employee as well as company policy on reporting the issue. Those who belong to a labour or trade union should also consult the related handbook and contract with their employer.

Following the proper procedures for filing a complaint of discrimination in the workplace can help you get results more quickly. It also protects you against the dismissal of your complaint due to 'not going through the right channels'.

5. Keep Any Evidence

There may be times when harassment and discrimination are more overt. For example, a woman may return to her cubicle to find a pornographic calendar hanging over her desk, or a person of colour may discover a picture of a burning cross taped to their chair. In such disturbing scenarios, FindLaw suggests to keep this evidence: 'Although you will certainly find it reprehensible and upsetting, try to control your urge to tear it up or throw it away. Having the actual offensive item to help prove your case is much easier than having to try to describe what it looked like and having to hope that your version will be believed.'

You should also take a photo of the scene as further proof that you were being targeted. Calling a supportive colleague over to witness it may be embarrassing but having their testimony will also be helpful when you report the incident.

6. Research Local and Federal Laws

It's also wise to be armed with the knowledge of laws that govern your place of work. You may be protected at both local and federal levels. For instance, the state of Illinois has the Illinois Human Rights Act, which 'prohibits discrimination in respect to employment, financial credit, public accommodations, housing and sexual harassment'. The US government has Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law that 'prohibits discrimination in terms and conditions of employment on the bases of race, colour, national origin, sex and religion'.

There can also be more specific laws on the books to protect your rights further. The UK, for example, expands upon their overall Equality Act with anti-discrimination legislation that includes the Equal Pay Act of 1970, the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. The Employment Equality Regulations also address discriminatory issues related to sexual orientation and age.

Be aware that there can be deadlines to file with government entities for arbitration or legal action. You can research these laws online or at law libraries that are open to the public. Your local community and college libraries can also assist you in obtaining the references you need.

7. Seek Out Support Systems

Dealing with discrimination at work can cause increased stress levels and can be damaging to your emotional and physical health. The American Psychological Association recommends a combination of self-care and seeking help from support systems. Sympathetic friends and family can be a valuable sounding board, whether it's merely to let off steam about the worst boss ever or to help you decide if your concerns about discrimination are valid and worth reporting. 

For further advice and commiseration, consider connecting locally or online with groups that share similar experiences to yours.

8. Make a Formal Complaint

This is where all your knowledge of policy and laws comes into play. Whether you're reporting the issue to management, your union representative, or the human resources department, make it clear that you're serious about making an official complaint. Ask for a written report on each incident, to prove that they are as severe as you are about pursuing the charge of discrimination in the workplace. Provide them with copies of your incident documentation, evidence and list of supportive witnesses.

Use proper legal language when talking about the issues you're having. Experienced managers will recognise terms like 'hostile work environment' or 'being singled out' as the kind of terminology that appears in lengthy and expensive lawsuits. If they've been lax in their response to the issue before, this could make them finally admit their mistakes in leadership and address your complaints.

9. Consult with Equal Employment Agencies

If your employer ignores your requests, retaliates by demoting or firing you, or you feel too intimidated or unsafe to make a formal complaint in a hostile environment, consult with equal employment agencies and organisations. In the US, for instance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for both enforcement of applicable laws and litigation in discrimination policy violations. The initial contact from the EEOC may be enough to prove to your employer that there has been a serious discrimination offence that needs to be dealt with immediately.

Advocacy groups like the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) can also offer advice and assistance in pursuing legal action for discrimination based on gender, race, disability or any other grounds. You can save time and energy navigating the complicated waters of complaints, grievances, tribunals and lawsuits by seeking the support of these organisations that have extensive experience in this area.

10. Get Legal Assistance

You can also consult with an attorney during any stage of the process. Specifically, look for someone who specialises in employment law. They can advise you on whether your claims have legal merit, what laws govern your situation, and what evidence you would need to take this to an employment tribunal or court.

Even if you're not planning legal action, it'd be good to consult a lawyer anyway. If you do find it necessary to bring more formal complaints, there are additional time restrictions for each step in the process. Having an attorney who knows the facts of your case on stand-by will save you critical time.

Confronting your colleagues and bosses about their acts of discrimination is not easy. Remember that finding the right support for every step is crucial. We hope this guide has helped you learn about your rights and what actions you can take to prevent a few bad actors from ruining a great job you want to hold onto.

Have you experienced discrimination in the workplace? How did you handle it? You can help others by sharing your stories in the comments below.