Unfair treatment based on a person's characteristics can be intentional or unintentional. Regardless of its intended purpose, discrimination in the workplace is harmful because it singles out specific people based on their gender identity, race, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or age.
HR professionals or small business owners should properly handle unlawful employment discrimination to maintain a positive work environment. Failure to thoroughly investigate incidents and respond accordingly has serious consequences.
This article contains:
Ten types of discrimination in the workplace as specified by federal laws to help your business avoid legal issues
How workplace discrimination kills productivity, multiplies costs, and threatens business success (And ways to avoid these repercussions)
Four steps you can take to handle unlawful employment practice the right way in the workplace
Best practices to identify and eliminate workplace discrimination (correctly implementing them creates a fair and inclusive workspace for all employees)
Let's dive in.
10 Types of Discrimination in the Workplace
Workplace discrimination occurs in many forms, including unfair hiring, promotion, job assignment, pay, termination, and training opportunities. Discrimination laws prohibit the following types of discrimination:
Race Discrimination in the Workplace
Mistreating someone because of their race is illegal (aka racial discrimination). The law prohibits discrimination based on race-related characteristics such as hair texture, facial features, and skin colour complexion.
Pregnant employees or expectant job applicants are entitled to equal treatment as their fellows. That means an employee should not be fired, denied promotion, or reduced salary due to pregnancy. Additionally, they have special rights such as:
Adjusted rest times, tasks, working environment, and working hours
If a business can't sufficiently eliminate health hazards for pregnant women in the workplace, it must offer alternative work (or exempt expectant mothers from work).
National Origin Discrimination
This type of workplace discrimination involves treating workers or applicants differently because of their origin—a particular country or part of the world. The unfair treatment may be based on the person's accent, ethnicity, or appearance of seemingly originating from a specific ethnic background.
This type of employment discrimination comprises mistreating someone because of their gender identity. It's also called gender discrimination.
It involves singling someone out because of their religious beliefs. Religious discrimination also comprises treating an employee differently for being married or associated with someone in a particular religion.
Civil Status Discrimination
This type of workplace discrimination is unfair treatment on the grounds of someone being single, married, divorced, or widowed.
Political discrimination involves bullying or treating someone unfavourably because of their political beliefs or activities.
Disability Discrimination in the Workplace
According to the Netherlands government and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), everyone is entitled to equal treatment. The law prohibits refusing to hire, pay unfairly, or deny the disabled reasonable accommodation despite being sufficiently qualified for a particular role as their normal peers.
This type of workplace discrimination comprises a person being singled out because of their age. For instance, a company cannot deny incentives, compensation, and benefits based on age.
Sexual Orientation Discrimination
This type of discrimination in the workplace involves mistreating someone for being hetero- or homosexual.
How Workplace Discrimination Affects Business
A business always suffers from discrimination-related scandals. If an employer doesn't investigate thoroughly and respond accordingly, the victim can file a complaint. In that case, an organisation could face expensive and time-consuming legal issues. The time necessary to fight lawsuits and settlement costs to resolve a complaint takes a toll on the employer.
Discriminatory practices are also a massive blow to employee engagement and satisfaction. Workplace discrimination, understandably, deprives them of motivation, engagement, and commitment to their jobs. For instance, employees who endure discrimination and suffer silently are much more likely to actively look for another job than workers who don't feel mistreated.
Discrimination in the workplace has existed for decades. Despite years of activism, HR programs and legislation through employment agencies to eliminate it and encourage inclusivity, workplace discrimination still prevails today. And surprisingly, it sometimes hides from those who make it happen.
So how can HR professionals and business owners identify it early, handle it effectively, and rid the workplace of success-threatening discrimination?
4 Steps to Handle and Prevent Discrimination in the Workplace
If you suspect or someone reports workplace discrimination, these tips will help you handle the situation and prevent the incident from happening again.
1. Demonstrate Empathy
If a person feels discriminated against, the individual feels that way for a reason. When someone reports discrimination, validate their feelings. Show the person you understand their situation, respect their emotions, and appreciate their courage to report the incident. Doing so lays a foundation of trust that makes the next step effective.
2. Conduct a Thorough Investigation
Any report of potential unfair treatment in the workplace must be urgently and thoroughly investigated. A poorly conducted investigation (or not done at all) causes performance, compliance, and morale issues. When done correctly, it enhances transparency, credibility, and integrity while mitigating employee disengagement, legal risks, and liability.
Conduct the investigations objectively. Focus on facts instead of emotions. The goal is to be unbiased no matter what you discover in the process, which brings us to the importance of physical evidence:
3. Gather Physical Proof
When an employee reports workplace discrimination, respond quickly but thoroughly. Obtain evidence that backs up the alleged discrimination.
For instance, are there messages to confirm sexual harassment claims? Have workers who do equal work been getting the same wages over the years? Do past performance reviews shed light on evidence of bias against a person or an employee group?
Obtaining evidence ensures the business's decisions concerning workplace discrimination incidents are exclusively data-driven. After solving an incident, don't stop there. Do this:
4. Consider the Bigger Picture and Adjust Workplace Policy Accordingly
For every reported workplace discrimination incident, assume several others went unreported. Interview employees (maybe through an anonymous survey) to identify existing but unspoken workplace discrimination cases. This may help discover that certain employees are unintentionally biased and require unconscious bias training.
Additionally, review hiring policies and how the company previously punished offenders, which helps illuminate bias. As a result, catch hidden issues and correct them early. Implement the following best practices to minimise the chances of recurrence and limit risks.
Best Practices to Create a Fair and Inclusive Work Environment
A diverse and inclusive workplace embraces different employees' backgrounds, religious beliefs, and values. McKinsey's research reveals that diverse organisations tend to be more profitable than less diverse industry peers. Taking the following bold actions helps create a fair and inclusive work environment:
Set a Strong Anti-Discrimination Workplace Policy
Your business can implement a zero-tolerance policy for behavioural biases or discriminatory practices, such as workplace harassment. Employees must either follow it or face serious punishment. Set assessment procedures to enable staff and leaders to evaluate each other on how the required anti-discrimination standards are being met.
Invest in Anti-Discrimination Training Programs
Hiring trained leaders, strengthening workplace rules, and fostering inclusion represent one piece of the puzzle. The other one is training workers to be careful with words, actions, and comments that can be interpreted as being biased, singling out specific groups of people, or creating a toxic workplace. This is one of the best ways for a business to proactively mitigate workplace discrimination risks.
Create Safe Spaces for Employees
Embracing diversity and inclusivity means ensuring employees with different ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation feel comfortable in the workplace. This is especially true for underrepresented groups.
Examples of safe spaces include:
Having a specific room for breastfeeding women to express milk or breastfeed
Accessible parking spots, bathrooms, and toilets for the disabled
Allowing for breaks and providing quiet spaces dedicated to religious activities
Providing digital accessibility (e.g., hearing aids, text size, website navigation tools etc.) for workers with visual, auditory and cognitive disabilities
Making areas in the workplace wheelchair-accessible
Observe the Religious Holidays of Employees
Refusing to accommodate a worker's sincerely held religious practice might be considered discrimination in the workplace. To advocate religious diversity, observe holidays representing workers' religious beliefs, especially the minority group.
For instance, your business can celebrate Diwali with Indian workers, Ramadan with Muslims, and Rosh Hashanah with Jewish employees. That way, they feel included and their religion respected in the workplace.
Teach Employees About Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)
Ensure the DEI training program addresses stereotypes in the workplace. Help workers embrace diverse cultures and learn to work with people of different ethnicities, backgrounds, religious beliefs, and perspectives.
The program should expound on the importance of workplace diversity, appreciating differences, and accepting others the way they are without prejudice. This improves the interpersonal skills of workers and builds a conducive workplace for everyone.
Encourage Inclusive Leadership
This means leaders create an atmosphere where everyone can share their perspectives and be heard. Embracing workers' input with different skills and ethnicity help promote engagement as well as collaboration in a diverse workplace.
Ways leaders can encourage inclusive leadership:
Ask employees questions when creating policies, building strategies, or making decisions that directly affect the staff.
Initiate productive arguments
Give employees actionable feedback to help them move up their career ladder.
Act upon advice from different workers to make them feel heard
Demonstrate individualised consideration for minority groups that tend to feel left out