Signs of Discrimination in the Workplace

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Discrimination in the workplace occurs when one or more people are treated unfairly based on legally protected traits, such as age, race, gender, religion, disability or sexual orientation. Recognizing that discrimination exists is the first step to deciding the right course of action to discourage or stop it.

Inappropriate Joking

One of the most common and often hardest discriminatory behaviors for an employer to address is inappropriate joking, according to a March 2013 Insight Into Diversity article. As employees become comfortable with each other, they may turn to trait-based joking, such as gender-based jokes or derogatory references to a co-worker's race or national origin. Employees may not appear to be bothered by such joking on the surface, but they sometimes harbor resentment until emotions boil over. Joking centered on legally protected classifications may support an employee's case when he alleges discrimination.

Hiring Managers Play Favorites

Another indication that discrimination is present in a workplace is when hiring and promotion decisions are based on favoritism and not qualifications. If a manager promotes a rookie male employee with less education and experience than a veteran female employee for an opening, a problem may exist. Similarly, it is a problem if a leader surrounds himself with buddies or favored workers rather than carefully evaluating and objectively promoting based on experience and performance.

Arbitrary Terminations

When managers terminate employees for arbitrary or nonexistent reasons, discrimination may be the real reason. An example is a three-year employee who has performed well and has always received favorable evaluations. The employee discloses his religious beliefs to a top manager over lunch and is fired two weeks later without much detail. In another example of discrimination, an accomplished female employee is terminated without much justification shortly after revealing she is pregnant. This termination might violate the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Unfair Behaviors

Treating employees differently based on legally-protected classifications also suggests discrimination. A manager only scheduling female employees on a rotating schedule to clean the bathrooms may represent gender discrimination, for instance. Allowing only younger employees to attend professional development workshops and training programs while denying such requests from workers over 40 is potentially age discrimination. As of 2015, some state laws also protect workers from unfair treatment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Clear Lack of Leadership Diversity

If your workplace has managers that all fit the same basic demographic profile despite a diverse pool of entry-level workers with similar experience, a culture of discrimination may exist. This disparity suggests interviewing practices or promotion processes may favor specific types of people. In the same way, a clear delineation between the types of people in upper-level and mid-level management is sometimes concerning. While women make up about half of middle management positions in the United States, only 4.6 of Fortune 500 CEOs were women as of a March 2014 Center for American Progress report. Women with better qualifications for executive-level positions being passed over for promotions by men is a potential sign of gender discrimination.

Subtle Signs of Preferential Treatment

Subtle signs in the way workers are treated may also point to discrimination. One such example is when factors such as gender, race or age impact the size of an employee's office space or its location. Particular workers getting weekends off or being scheduled for preferred work shifts are other signs of possible discrimination.