Know Your Rights: Dealing with Racism in the Workplace

Strategies to recognize, confront and combat racial discrimination.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Silhouettes of people combatting racism in the workplace

Experiencing racial discrimination in the workplace is one of the most disruptive and distressing professional situations. It doesn’t just impact individuals but can also affect whole teams by creating a hostile working environment.

If you find yourself in the position of being racially discriminated against at work, there are many things that you can do about it. This article aims to explain what your rights are in the workplace if you experience racial discrimination, including what it is, how you’re legally protected, and what actions you can take to protect yourself or others.

What is racial discrimination?

Racial discrimination is the unfair treatment of a person or a group of people based on their race, skin color or ethnicity. It can be overt or covert and be the actions of individuals or organizations. Discrimination on the basis of race can be evidenced in many forms and affect people in various ways.

Examples of racism in the workplace

Racial discrimination can occur in different forms, ranging from obvious issues to more subtle examples such as indirect discrimination.

Racism in the workplace often involves unfair hiring practices or recruiter bias. Linked to this is racial discrimination through promotion, how performance reviews are administered, selectively choosing employees for career development, or making any other employment decision based on their race.

Racial discrimination in the workplace can also be manifested through assigning jobs or implementing policies based on racial differences and through pay differences. Racism in the workplace can also happen through social exclusion or denying access to networking events, or not doing enough to ensure a diverse range of ethnicities are present at leadership levels. Finally, casual workplace behaviors such as comments, jokes or “banter” can be racially insensitive and create a hostile or offensive work environment.

Some specific examples of how racism can be observed in the workplace are as follows:

  • Accepting racial harassment or ignoring racist jokes or comments in the workplace
  • Asking racially biased questions in job interviews
  • Assigning less important jobs to someone based on their race or national origin
  • Implementing policies at work that directly or indirectly put a certain race or ethnicity at a disadvantage
  • Punishing an employee who makes a complaint regarding racial discrimination

What to do if you feel you’re racially discriminated against at work

As mentioned above, racial discrimination isn’t always overt, and there will be cases where you’re thinking to yourself if it’s actually happening. Here are five things to do if you feel you’re being racially discriminated against at work.

1. Keep a record

Keeping a record of racial discrimination at work is essential, especially if you need to pursue formal action at a later stage.

Ensure you keep records of evidence such as emails, graffiti, messages or anything else that can be copied or photographed to substantiate an allegation. Also, document every conversation and telephone call, where behaviors — even only suspected behavior — took place. Include location, times, duration, dates, the type of discrimination, and the names and positions of the people involved.

Be meticulous and thorough, and collate this information as a timeline, as and when it happens, so the information is fresh in your memory.

2. Seek support from others

Having emotional support from family, friends and trusted colleagues is a vital part of dealing with racism in the workplace. These people can listen to you, guide you, and help you rationalize what has been happening.

By sharing experiences, you might also find that this takes some of the mental burden off your shoulders. Consider also joining an employee resource group, as these groups will provide support and advocate for you.

3. Be familiar with your rights

Get up to speed on your legal rights as an employee. This can involve researching the best day-to-day approaches to manage racism in the workplace, through to reading up on your rights under local, state and even federal anti-discrimination laws.

By understanding the options you have open at this stage, you can prepare yourself and collect the relevant information, should you need to take formal action at a later stage. If you can, consider also consulting with a lawyer to understand the legal processes and potential costs that might be involved in making a claim for racial discrimination in the workplace.

4. Review organizational policies

Be sure to review any applicable organizational policies regarding racism in the workplace. This might include consulting with applicable ERGs, looking at company policies and procedures, and also becoming familiar with the content in your employment contract, job description and employee handbook.

This information will clarify what isn’t acceptable in the workplace, helping you frame out a complaint if you need to. You’ll also gain clarification on complaint procedures so you know who to complain to, what you need to mention, and the steps involved in processing a complaint at work.

5. Exercise self-care

If you feel racially discriminated against at work, you must ensure you look after number one — yourself.

Dealing with harassment on the basis of race can be stressful and emotionally draining. Ensure you keep your support network close to you, and also participate in other self-care activities, such as exercise, healthy eating, and anything else that will help you cope with what’s happening.

Ensure you also look into professional counseling options; some employers will have an employee assistance program where such counseling can be obtained free of charge.

Your rights as an employee

Employees are protected under two key pieces of US legislation when it comes to racial discrimination.

The blanket act to keep in mind is Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which prohibits discrimination when it comes to contracts, being taken to court or giving evidence. It stipulates that people of all racial groups are to benefit equally from the law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, meanwhile, makes it illegal for employers (with 15 or more employees) to discriminate against employees based on race or ethnicity.

Additionally, employees have the protection of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You can file a complaint with the EEOC regarding any race or color discrimination in the workplace. The EEOC also protects you against retaliation for raising a complaint with your employer.

The EEOC often asks that you raise a complaint via local or state Fair Employment Practices Agencies, which specialize in local and state considerations when it comes to discrimination laws. A complaint raised through a FEPA is dual filed with the EEOC. You must file a complaint with your employer before you reach out to the EEOC or an FEPA, and depending on the state, you’ll have between 180 and 300 days to do this from the date that the racial discrimination occurred.

If an allegation of racial discrimination is upheld by the EEOC, employers are obligated to take certain actions:

  • Reinstate you if you were wrongfully terminated based on your race
  • Compensate you for lost wages
  • Reimburse you for legal fees
  • Potentially compensate you for afflictions like mental distress
  • Award potential punitive damages as a result of racial discrimination
  • Implement affirmative action programs, such as on-the-job training to ensure instances of racial discrimination do not happen again

How to take action

If you’re being racially discriminated against at work, you’ll need to take action to ensure that your concerns are responded to and that your employer can take steps against the people involved to ensure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.

Here are five ways to take action when you have been racially discriminated against at work.

1. Speak to the person involved

If you feel comfortable doing so, you can speak to the person directly. This can potentially defuse situations, perhaps if the person didn’t realize the impact of what they were doing.

Remember to challenge the language, not the person. Asking open-ended questions is a good approach, such as “What does that mean?” or “Can you explain that to me, please?”. This might help the person reflect on what they said.

Explain how the person made you feel. If this process works, then the air might be cleared and no further action might be needed, but sometimes you’ll need to take matters further.

2. Speak informally to a manager

A good step to taking action if you feel you’ve been racially discriminated against is to speak with your manager. Informal action like this allows the manager to speak with you to understand in depth what has happened, and to see if a facilitated conversation or mediation between both parties is the best way forward or if it might work.

Informal action is good from your point of view as it might minimize the stress of following a long and formal complaint procedure, and it also means that situations like misunderstandings or different points of view can be resolved without disproportionate action on someone who has been accused of racism but was unaware of how their actions impact others.

3. Make a formal complaint

If you feel that an informal chat with your manager won’t work, won’t be sufficient, or you have tried this approach and nothing changed, then your next course of action is to formally complain.

This is sometimes called a grievance and will initially involve writing a letter or email to HR or your manager outlining your complaint in detail. Your employer will then have an obligation to investigate this and respond formally to you with their decided outcome.

A formal complaint might take some time. In most cases, you’ll be invited to a hearing to discuss the complaint, and then anyone raised in this complaint will also be invited to meetings to give their side of the story. Outcomes will naturally vary, from your complaint being dismissed without action to disciplinary action being taken against the respondent(s), or mediation or training being suggested.

4. Seek legal counsel

If you feel that your racial discrimination complaint is not being resolved appropriately, or that what happened constitutes a severe breach of employment law, then you might want to consider retaining an employment lawyer.

Some employment lawyers specialize in workplace discrimination. They can provide you with legal advice and walk through the legal options available to you. Employment lawyers will also help you work through a complaint to the EEOC, covered below.

5. Contact external agencies

When you have exhausted all options to resolve your racial discrimination complaint, or you feel that the matter has not been resolved to your satisfaction, this is when you can contact the EEOC.

As mentioned before, the EEOC will often ask that you raise the complaint via a local or state-specific FEPA. The EEOC will fully investigate your claim, take all documentation from you and your employer to reach a fair decision, and take appropriate action on it where necessary.

Final thoughts

Because racial discrimination can create an offensive work environment and is so unpleasant, it can be tempting to do nothing at all, or to “take action” by simply resigning from your role and going to work somewhere else. However, there are plenty of positive actions you can take, and you’re protected a great deal by employers and by the law.

Knowing your rights when it comes to racial discrimination means that you’re better placed to take action and work towards a positive working environment once again.

Have you experienced workplace racism, or have a question for us? Let us know in the comments section below.