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How do I know if I’ve experienced discrimination at work?

On Behalf of | Jan 14, 2024 | Employment Law

It can be relatively easy to recognize signs of overt workplace discrimination. If a business allows employees to use racial or homophobic slurs casually, that’s a sign of a workplace that isn’t protecting its employees. The same is true for businesses that don’t make even minor accommodations for disabled or pregnant employees.

Most employers know that discrimination based on protected characteristics is illegal, but that doesn’t mean they leave their prejudices at the door. And, ultimately, some discriminatory behavior is difficult to identify and respond to. When less obvious kinds of unlawful mistreatment are allowed to fester, it can make broader discrimination manifestations more “acceptable” and even pervasive in a workplace. The following are just a few common examples of this latter kind of mistreatment.

Employment actions not based on merit

All employment actions – both positive and negative – should be based on employee performance. If a manager always seems to be promoting employees based on how well they get along with them or other factors when they’re clearly not the best qualified – especially if they all seem to be of one gender, race or age group – that can be a sign of discrimination. Likewise, if people are terminated or laid off based on something other than poor performance or wrongful behavior, that too can be a sign of discrimination.

Assignments based on stereotypical roles

Some managers lean in to gender, racial and other stereotypes. If females are regularly asked to take notes in meetings or go pick up coffee when these things aren’t part of their job (especially if similar requests aren’t made of males with similar frequency), that’s a pretty clear sign that a manager still believes these are “women’s jobs.” That means trying to get ahead in that company could be extraordinarily challenging for female employees.

Informal interactions

If a white, male manager is always visiting in his office or going to lunch with a few other white, male employees, it’s reasonable to ask what others are missing out on that could be valuable to their career. Remember that Friends episode where Rachel pretended to be a smoker when she discovered her boss and other colleagues were making business decisions while gathered in the “smoking area” on the building’s rooftop? A similar dynamic can happen when a boss feels more comfortable around some people than others.

While none of these examples may be actionable cases of discrimination alone, they can be signs that those in charge of a workplace are discriminating against people based on protected characteristics. If you believe you’ve suffered harm because of your employer’s discriminatory actions, you have the right to speak up. If you can’t resolve the issue with your employer, it may be wise to seek legal guidance, regardless of whether you’re sure that you have a case or not, as not all kinds of unlawful treatment are easy to spot at a glance.