In a previous post I wrote this week, I talked about gender discrimination in the workplace but on a larger scale. I talked about it in terms of an overall organization and how we as a society of professionals can reduce the amount of sexual discrimination in the workplace.
I received a comment on that post with questions regarding how to deal with discrimination at work, but on a smaller scale, the personal scale. What can someone do if they themselves are being discriminated against?
I thought this was a great question and though I did responded in the comments field on that post I want to polish my answer and put it in an actual blog entry so others have easy visibility to it as well. I know discrimination at work is not a rare occurrence by any means and it can be very stressful, upsetting and difficult to deal with.
Without further ado, here are my suggestions on what to do if you are being discriminated against. There really is no cookie-cutter answer as every situation is different and I encourage you to talk to friends, family and mentors outside of work for added input. But this post will give you some valuable insight and, at the very least, a strong starting point.
I am Being Discriminated Against at Work, What Do I Do?
The answer to these questions:
What do I do if I am being discriminated against at work? Do I talk to the individual who is discriminating against me? Do I talk to my manager? Do I approach HR?
Is “it depends”. This answer probably brings you back to college days when you were sitting in your Economics class for business majors, and Biology class for everyone else. Somehow the answer was always, “it depends.” Well, it is just as applicable here, but do not worry. I will not leave you hanging. Here is what I would do.
My first recommendation in any situation involving other people is to communicate. Talk to the person and try to reach an understanding. When you honestly try to understand the other person, it makes them more compassionate and understanding of you. If people would sit down and talk more instead of react based off misunderstandings, there would be much less conflict.
The reason why I suggest that you first consider talking to the individual is because they may be completely oblivious to what they are doing. They may not realize that they are treating you unfairly or making you uncomfortable. If you talk to them and explain how their behavior makes you feel, the light bulb may go off and they may back off.
With that Said
With that said, I understand that a lot of times, communicating with others is something that can only happen in an ideal world. Often times, communication is just not an option and that is perfectly understandable. This is actually the entire premise of my book, 25 Things They Don’t Teach in Business School – tips and techniques to use in various situations when communication just does not work or is just not an option. Here are some reasons why you may not be able to communicate when being discriminated against in the office:
- You do not feel comfortable approaching the individual
- The individual is your manager
- You have already tried communicating with the individual and they agreed with you to your face, but continue to discriminate against you. They have chosen to ignore you
According to most HR policies, the person being discriminated against does not need to approach the discriminator themselves. You do not in any way have to make them aware that they are discriminating against you or making you uncomfortable. Most HR policies also clearly outline what forms discrimination can take and require that all employees not only read the policy, but also undergo training on the same topic.
At the same time, one of the first things that we learn when we enter the “real world” is that what is put on paper and in writing is often very different from what occurs in reality. Discrimination of any kind, whether gender, racial, age, sexual orientation, etc. is extremely difficult to prove. Most companies, and that includes their HR departments, are going to protect themselves over you.
The reason why I bring this up is that even though you do not need to take MUCH action (other than informing your manager or HR) when it comes to dealing with discrimination know that in many cases the company is not on your side. So no matter what you choose to do whether it be talk to the discriminator in person, talk to your manager, talk to HR, or even talk to no one at all, you MUST document, document, document.
A general rule of thumb in any difficult, tense situation in the workplace is that you should have strong evidence that highlights what is going on in reality. Evidence generally comes in the form of documentation. Remember, if you only do one thing, it should be to document. Document, document, document.
People, including individuals in HR, may try to tell you that documentation does not mean anything and that it is useless (even though when you first joined the company they likely told you how important it is), but always document. Documentation does mean something. In fact, it means a lot! If you are being discriminated against, be sure to check out my posts regarding the tricks HR plays and how to beat them at their games. I let you in on a lot of HR secrets that I had to learn the hard way through personal experience dealing with them.
What should you document? Documentation usually comes in the form of emails, but it can also come in the form of notes that you write in notepad or journal. Included in your documentation should be:
- Detail of what happened and what was said. If you can write things verbatim, even better
- A date and time stamp of when each event happened. If you write this in an email, the date and time stamp will already be there for you and will be even more credible
- You should document all events and conversations. That includes documenting any conversations you have with the discriminator as well as with HR and your manager
Honestly, I have learned the hard way that you should document everything regardless of the outcome of the conversation. Even if the discriminator agrees to modify his or her behavior and you end on a good note, document it. You never know what is going to happen in the future. There have been times when things were going well at work with individuals I fully trusted and never had conflicts with. And then one day the tables turned and it was very fortunate that I documented things that were said. You just never know.
The best form of documentation is when you email the individual that you talked to. So, if you talked to the discriminator, you might shoot him or her an email subtly documenting what was discussed. Do not be too obvious as you do not want to make them nervous, but do document it. If you meet with HR, document that as well. You can probably go in more detail with your HR emails.
When you email the individual you talked to, it not only counts as evidence that something has been going on, but it also serves as a way to make sure that no one can claim that they were unaware of your situation. You sent them an email so they were definitely aware.
I know I said that no one is supposed to get away with the “I didn’t know” card, but like I said, what is written on paper is very different from what occurs in reality. If, for whatever reason you cannot do this, writing notes to yourself is still useful and much better than having nothing at all. Think about Sabrina Sabin and how she kept records of sexual harassment where she worked.
So at this point you have either decided to, or not to, talk to the discriminator. Regardless of whether you are or are not going to talk to them, you are keeping detailed documentation on what is going on. If possible, you are sending emails TO the individual in a subtle, non-threatening way so that they are aware of what is going on. Either way, you are also keeping detailed notes that are date and time stamped.
Now that you have some documentation regarding what is going on, it is time to approach someone. It can be the discriminator if you have decided to talk to them. It can be your manager. If you talk to your manager, they are required to report it to HR, but I might follow up myself in a few days if I do not hear back. If the discriminator is your manager, or if you just prefer to talk to HR, get in touch with HR. If the discriminator is not your manager, you might want to give your manager the heads up that you are approaching HR, but that is up to you depending on how personal the situation is.
This should give you some good first steps on dealing with discrimination at work on a more personal level. Just always remember to document.
If you are dealing with other situation that involve dealing with difficult people in the office and communication is just not an option, be sure to buy my book 25 Things They Don’t Teach in Business School: A User’s Manual for Surviving Office Politics available on Kindle.