How to Handle Discrimination in the Workplace


In addition to the original Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, federal law also prohibits discrimination based on age, disability and the use of genetic information. To handle discrimination in the workplace, you must first identify the behavior and confirm that it is discriminatory. Document what you see, hear and experience, report through appropriate channels and utilize arbitration and negotiation to effect change. As a last resort, consider legal action.

Observe and Confirm

  • Workplace discrimination can be overt or subtle. An occasional comment or joke about national origin, for example, is not discriminatory. When an organization promotes only men to management positions, however, or lays off only Asians in a multiethnic workforce, the behavior is likely discrimination. If an organization has a good reason for an employment requirement or practice, it may not be discrimination. For example, the majority of your clients might speak only Spanish, and your organization might give preference to employees who are bilingual.

    Your first step in handling discrimination is to identify the specific behavior or actions that you think are discriminatory and do some research to see whether the behavior qualifies.

Prepare Your Documentation

  • Document what’s happening. You will need this information to make a report, to substantiate your case and -- if all else fails -- to take legal action. Your documentation should include only facts, not inferences. Include the date, time and location of the occurrence, what people said or did and who was present. If the behavior occurs in the presence of witnesses, you may be able to get documentation from them as well.

    Collect copies of your performance evaluations or other records of your work performance, and keep them somewhere other than the workplace. You may need such information if your employer tries to contend that poor job performance was the reason for its actions.

Report and Problem-Solve

  • Many organizations have a formal grievance policy that delineates steps you can take to report and resolve discriminatory practices. Once you’ve collected your documentation, you might want to make an appointment with a lawyer to review your information and coach you on how to make your presentation to the organization. Next, make a formal complaint through the appropriate channels.

    Keep your approach friendly and focused on solving the problem; a hostile approach may cost you your job or permanently impair working relationships. If other employees also face discrimination, you may be more successful in resolving the situation as a group. Your organization should investigate your complaint and at least make an attempt to resolve the problem.

Negotiation and Arbitration

  • Negotiation and formal arbitration may be possible strategies to resolve discrimination. In some organizations, union contracts prohibit discrimination and provide for formal arbitration to resolve complaints. Your union contract may even require formal arbitration and you can be compelled to take that step, according to an April 2009 article on the website of the Stevens and Lee law firm. Arbitration is legally binding, and you usually will not be able to file a lawsuit if the arbitrator upholds the employer’s practices. Contact your union steward or other representative to determine what action you must take.

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