Categorized | Career

Dealing with Discrimination at Job

Posted on 23 September 2008

My former coworker, Amy, used to joke that the glass ceiling above her was double-paned plexiglass, as she’s both female and African-American. At the time, we were both low enough on the corporate ladder that we could laugh about it. Her glass ceiling was more like a distant sky light.

But that was four years ago. Today she thinks she’s a full-fledged victim of bias. “Thinks,” because she’s not positive. Discrimination is often an insidious undercurrent in the workplace – hard to pinpoint and even harder to prove. Yes, she says, there are far fewer women than men in senior management positions at her company, and very few African-American employees at all. Yes, she feels like she should be making more money than she does. But there’s never been conclusive evidence that her gender or race have affected her career. No one else has her exact same job, so it’s difficult to compare salaries. No one else has her exact same credentials, so it’s difficult to question promotions.

She doesn’t want to risk losing her job until she has conclusive evidence.

It’s hard enough to deal with discrimination without the looming possibility of losing your job. Kerry Santry, Associate Director of the Career Planning Center at Tufts University and prior co-chair of the Diversity Resources Committee of the Board of Directors of the Eastern College and Employer Network, offers the following remedies and resources to help workers prevent, as well as overcome, bias in the workplace:

  • Select your employers well. During the interview process, it is up to you to study the company at the same time they are considering you. Do you see many women, people of color or wheelchair users? Are other members of your “group” visible?
  • Know the company politics going in. This is easier on a company-wide basis than departmentally. Some companies make corporate statements about supporting diversity, others make their commitment to social welfare known through community and charitable activities.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Ask if your new employer has a formal mentorship program. In some workplaces, there may be professional and/or social groups to assist you in charting new waters. If things start to get bad, keep notes in a journal stating what happened, the date and who was involved. Use your company’s affirmative action officers/committees and/or relevant formal procedures if you think you’re experiencing bias. If necessary, contact the state commission against discrimination to find out what legal options and protection you have (e.g., the Civil Rights Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act).
  • Educate your peers. Bias is usually based on ignorance and fear.
  • Sometimes you need to instruct people who genuinely don’t understand cultural, religious, physical or other differences. If your religious beliefs require that you leave work to be home before sundown on Friday, don’t just leave the office – let your peers know why you are leaving. Invite your co-workers to celebrate Kwanzaa, or encourage the office “party planner” (usually an unofficial title!) to include it and Chanukah in the December holiday festivities. If you have a partner of the same gender, display his or her photo on your desk if others display those of their heterosexual partners.
  • Join, and become active in, professional associations. These are great places to grow and network professionally. If you do encounter bias in the workplace, you may be able to get some great advice from someone who has already dealt with a similar situation.
  • Remember that work is not home and family. Unfortunately, you will not always like the people you work with nor will they like you. Sometimes it is difficult to know if one is experiencing bias or simply a personality conflict. Ask a more seasoned employee to help you think through the best way to resolve work-based difficulties.
  • Be yourself; do your best work. Those who work hard and do their best are on track to succeed. Keep copies of your formal evaluations, notes of praise and, if it’s not proprietary information, copies of important projects you have worked on so that you can show a history of good work. But when you experience real discrimination, don’t be afraid to take action to remedy the situation.

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