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Racial Discrimination in the Workplace

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Simply put, racial discrimination involves treating people differently because of their race, color or ethnic origin. Racial discrimination is illegal under federal law, and many states also have laws prohibiting the practice. Organizations may practice overt discrimination, such as refusing to hire someone whose skin is a particular color. However, racial discrimination can also be subtle. For example, a less obvious form is not promoting a qualified individual on the basis of her ethnic organ. It may be difficult to prove racial discrimination, but it is helpful to be able to recognize the signs.

Discrimination Must Affect Employment

When a company makes hiring or salary decisions based on skin color or ethnic background, without regard to the individual's qualifications or performance, it is likely to be racial discrimination. To qualify as discrimination in the workplace, the behavior must affect your employment in some way. If you have been fired because of your skin color, for example, that qualifies as illegal racial discrimination. If a company consistently promotes only people of one skin color or ethnic background, that may also qualify as discrimination.

Discrimination May Include Harassment

Harassment can also be a form of racial discrimination; if your boss or colleagues call you names or make jokes in your hearing about other races or ethnic groups, that is a sign of discrimination. It is important to distinguish between harassment based on race and a more generalized form of harassment. If your boss consistently calls people names, swears at them or makes threats, his behavior may be frightening or upsetting. However, unless the boss uses terms that are specific to your skin color or ethnic background -- such as calling a Muslim employee a “raghead” -- it is not necessarily racial discrimination.

Overt Discrimination

If you look around and see that your organization is multi-ethnic, but all of the managers are white, it could be an indication of racial discrimination. As another example, the company decides to lay off workers -- those who are let go are all in a particular ethnic group. One sign of overt racial discrimination might be the way in which employees receive job assignments. If only employees of a particular ethnic group or skin color deal with customers, for example, it could be discriminatory. The key is whether the job requires certain characteristics. If almost all your customers speak primarily Spanish, for example, it is not discriminatory to require that those who serve them also speak the language.

Subtle Signs of Discrimination

Subtle forms of racial discrimination can be much harder to identify. Variances in pay based on racial characteristics, for example, may not be readily apparent. If the majority of the management team is of one skin color, it could be because they are the most qualified employees or it could be because of discrimination. A minimum height requirement for a desk job is probably discriminatory, while a minimum height requirement to operate certain kinds of machinery may not be. Asian men, for example, are typically not as tall as Caucasians or many blacks. If a truck driver must be a certain height to reach the operating controls, a height requirement may not be discriminatory, even though it negatively affects more Asians than whites or blacks.