Your boss calls you a dumb blonde and your coworkers tease you about being an airhead. When you try to file a complaint with the human resources department, you’re told to forget it, as neither is discriminatory. You may be steamed, but HR is correct -- neither of these activities meets the legal definition of discrimination. However, if you look around, there may signs of discrimination at work, some subtle and some more overt.
Discriminatory practices must meet certain legal tests. First, the practice must be related to employment. Hiring, firing, compensation, recruitment, assignments, layoffs, training and fringe benefits are all employment practices that qualify under several anti-discrimination laws. Second, certain protected characteristics or activities are included in the definition of discriminatory practices. Harassment based on religion, sex, color, race, disability or age is a common trigger for discrimination lawsuits. Retaliating against an employee who files discrimination charges is also illegal.
Another factor in discrimination or harassment charges is a hostile workplace. One example: you are female, your work area is wallpapered with nude centerfolds of well-endowed women and your coworkers are constantly telling off-color jokes. Another sign of this problem is coworkers, bosses or even vendors who use racial or ethnic slurs in your presence. If coworkers use terms such as “old man” or “geezer” about the white-haired purchasing agent, especially to his face, it can qualify as a hostile environment. This behavior must be frequent and pervasive to meet the legal definition.
Race and Sex
Take racial discrimination -- this can be pretty easy to spot because you need only look around at your fellow employees. If you live in a community that is heavily dominated by people with dark skin, but all of the employees in your organization are white, your organization may be practicing discrimination in hiring practices. Another area that can be readily visible to a casual observer is if all of the subordinate positions in the organization are held by women and the managers are all males.
Don't Make Assumptions
There may be other reasons for some of these activities, so don’t just assume that your employer is allowing discrimination to occur. Some people are very clever at hiding their nefarious behavior and it may not be until an employee files a formal complaint that the top brass becomes aware of a problem. In the case of the all-white staff, it's possible a high-tech organization located in a poor black neighborhood may not have been able to find qualified applicants in the community.
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Discriminatory Practices
- The Risk Institute: Discrimination and Harassment in the Workplace -Five Essential Strategies for Smarter Risk Management
- Forbes Magazine: The New Face of Workplace Discrimination
- The Plain Dealer: Complaints of Religious Discrimination in Workplace Are Increasing
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.