Discrimination in the Workplace: How to Handle Complaints

What happens when an incident of discrimination occurs at work? Here’s what you need to do.

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Over the past decade, the rise of social justice movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have opened discussions about day-to-day instances of discrimination and injustice across our lives. And the workplace is no different.

Discrimination in the workplace is a reality for millions of Americans. In a recent study, more than 4 out of 10 workers revealed that they have experienced racism at work. Only 33 states currently protect LGBTQIA+ workers’ rights. And in STEM positions, 50% of women have been discriminated against due to their gender.

However, it is possible to turn these statistics around and level the playing field. New Mexico, a state with previously one of the highest levels of discrimination complaints, has seen a 68.9% reduction since 2008. And as more companies begin to address issues within their organizations or stand for inclusive values, we may see these numbers drop even further.

But before we can handle a problem, we need to be able to diagnose it. And what is considered discrimination today is not as blatant as we may think.

What is discrimination

Discrimination is when you treat someone differently, usually unfavorably, due to their race, age, religion, disability, or gender. While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces anti-discrimination laws, it’s possible that discrimination still takes place due to unconscious bias.

2/3 of Black professionals felt they had to work harder than their non-Black colleagues to advance professionally, compared to only 16% of White professionals who felt the same.

In a 2019 report by the Center for Talent Innovation, 2/3 of Black professionals felt they had to work harder than their non-Black colleagues to advance professionally, compared to only 16% of White professionals who felt the same.

But that’s not all. Inequalities in pay are still common, with Black and Hispanic professionals making significantly less than their White counterparts.

What is a microaggression?

These days, the most common form of outward discrimination is a microaggression. A microaggression is a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination.

This can be something like calling COVID the “Kung-flu” or “Chinese virus,” touching a Black person’s hair — especially without permission — or asking inappropriate questions about someone’s identity.

Microaggressions may appear small to some, but these incidents can add up and create a toxic workplace for everyone.

How to handle complaints

It can be hard to hear that an employee feels discriminated against at the workplace, but there are many steps you can take against it. According to the EEOC, you should do the following if confronted with discrimination complaints:

  1. First, ask the employee about the incident and identify other employees that they believe were treated more fairly. During this step, it’s critical to treat the employee pointing out discrimination with respect and attention. No matter how unbelievable it may appear to you, keep an open mind and don’t be dismissive.
  2. Next, you’ll want to meet with the appropriate managers to understand the context of the employees’ relationship, similar incidents and go over the situation.
  3. Together, you’ll want to determine whether the disciplinary policy was applied consistently.
  4. Suppose you find that discrimination has indeed taken place. In that case, you’ll want to provide the employee with any benefits, pay, or other opportunities they would have received.
  5. You’ll want to document every step of the investigation, and if necessary, punish the offender and discuss discrimination with your employees. Punishment can range from warnings for misunderstandings to termination.

Other considerations

You’ll also want to consider how you handle the safety of the victim in these cases. Many may refuse to admit to being discriminated against due to fear of revenge. You may want to ensure that the 2 people involved do not work together in the same environment in the future, and put other safeguards in place to ensure that your company continues to be a secure place for all employees.

Of course, the best way to deal with discrimination in the workplace is to put preventative measures in place. This can include ensuring that all employees are aware of anti-discrimination policies and potential punishments. Your employees should be clear about the expected company culture and that reports of discrimination will be dealt with swiftly.

The best way to deal with discrimination in the workplace is to put preventative measures in place. This can include ensuring that all employees are aware of anti-discrimination policies and potential punishments.

Keep in mind that there may be times when you are not the first person who receives the complaint. Your employee might first contact a government agency, such as the EEOC, and you’ll need to collaborate with their specific investigation.

In addition, if you feel that you may be biased or unequipped to deal with discrimination complaints, it is better to hire an outside investigator than to do nothing. Cases of discrimination are painful for the victim, and if left unaddressed, can affect everyone in the workplace. The sooner you handle the complaints, the better.

Creating a discrimination-free workplace

The first step to handling discrimination and conflict in the workplace is understanding the extent of the problem. Our HR Guide of Addressing Social Issues and Racism provides critical statistics about injustice at work and how to deal with them.

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