Dealing with Discrimination in the Workplace

In the last few years, charges of gender discrimination in the workplace have increased. Racial bias, while no longer the most common complaint among employees, remains a problem, as does age discrimination. How exactly should a manager safeguard against discrimination in his or her workplace? And should discrimination rear its head, what is the best way to handle it?

Dealing effectively with discrimination is a twofold process: become knowledgeable with regard to antidiscrimination laws, and pay close attention to what’s happening in your company.

Here are some general guidelines for managers to follow when confronted by any type of discrimination:

  • Pay attention to what you don’t always see. You can’t always see it, prove it, or stop it, but if you ignore even the hint of discriminatory behavior, you and your company could suffer in the long run. Low morale, employee conflicts, and even lawsuits are just a few of the serious problems that could arise.
  • Don’t play favorites. If you offer certain benefits to employees, make sure these perks are available to everyone. For instance, if you want to provide a flexible work arrangement for your older workers, avoid appearing discriminatory by being sure to offer this option to everyone.
  • Keep your personal beliefs personal. Your personal philosophy regarding race, religion, sexual orientation, and other potentially contentious issues should not affect your duty to monitor workplace discrimination, nor should it cloud your views regarding what’s legal and just.
  • Be careful of what you say and to whom you say it. It’s easy for an off-the-cuff remark — said by either you or an employee — to start an avalanche of bad feelings and even a charge of discrimination. Think before you say something that might be misconstrued, and teach your employees to conduct themselves similarly. People should not be afraid to be themselves, but they do need to be careful, sensitive, and knowledgeable about what’s okay to say and what’s better left unsaid.
  • Respond quickly. If an employee expresses concern about possible workplace discrimination, do what you can in the shortest period of time to resolve the issue. Allowing it to linger will only add to the employee’s anxiety and allow whatever may be occurring to continue. Establish a clear policy for yourself and others for dealing with the problem. Do some intelligence gathering by having an honest conversation with the person who has lodged the complaint. Who said what? What exactly happened? Who else was involved? Along with the help and guidance of your human resources manager, talk to the person who has been accused. Make sure to take (and safeguard) copious notes of your discussions.
  • Educate yourself. Stay informed about workplace discrimination. Talk with your peers in similar and different industries, read your daily newspaper for information about what’s happening locally, and conduct research on discrimination and harassment law. Find out what it means for you as an employer. Consider paying an attorney who specializes in this area a one- or two-hour consulting fee, and ask as many questions as you can. Think of your investment as part of the cost of doing business. In the long run, a short meeting could save you a lot of money.
  • Formalize the policy and the consequence. Create and post an antidiscrimination policy (or consider paying an expert to create one). Keep in mind that no antidiscrimination policy will be taken seriously unless you take concrete action against any possible wrongdoing. After you’ve assessed the situation and consulted a lawyer, determine how you’re going to proceed. If you discover that some kind of discrimination has taken place, decide if you will start with a warning, insist on counseling, or formally terminate the accused.