How to Spot and Respond to Discrimination in the Workplace

No one should have to put up with discrimination in the workplace.

Unfortunately, it happens all too often. Whether you’re being targeted because of your race, gender, religion, or something else entirely, it’s important to know how to spot discrimination at work and what to do if you experience it. 

In this blog post, I’ll share a few different types of workplace discrimination and how to respond to them.


1. What is workplace discrimination, and what are the different forms it can take?

discrimination in the workplace definition
Source: American Psychological Association

Harassment is one type of workplace discrimination. This refers to any unwelcome or offensive behavior that creates a hostile work environment. This includes racist or sexist jokes, offensive comments about someone’s appearance, or repeatedly asking personal questions that make someone feel uncomfortable. 

For example, I read a story about an employee at a well-known coffee franchise. She is half-white and half Polynesian. A customer told her she looked like the lady on the plastic cup. She felt numb. Caught off guard and unsure how to respond, she said nothing. Meanwhile, the man proceeded to tell her he was not giving her a compliment.

Situations like these happen daily, and the people experiencing them will be affected for a lifetime. 

Another type of discrimination is called job segregation, which is when employees are placed into different roles based on their protected characteristics. For example, women may be relegated to lower-paying jobs or jobs that are traditionally seen as “women’s work.” 

Discrimination in the workplace can also be seen with pay disparities, where employees with the same qualifications are paid different amounts based on their protected characteristics. For example, a woman who is paid less than a man for doing the same job. 

Discrimination is a serious issue. It can negatively impact both individual employees and the workplace as a whole. 

Note: If you believe you are the victim of workplace discrimination, it’s important to speak up and take action.


2. How to respond to discrimination 

As an employee, it’s essential to know what actions you can take if you or someone you know experiences discrimination at work. One option for resolving the issue would be attempting to speak with the person discriminating against you. However, this depends on a number of factors—such as the severity of the offense, your level of comfort, and your past experiences with the individual. Was this an off-handed remark that seemed out-of-character for this person? Or, was the incident just one more uncomfortable moment in a concerning pattern of bad behavior?

If you feel uncomfortable talking to the offender directly, or if the conversation is unproductive, you can file a formal complaint with your company’s human resources department. 

Before filing a complaint, it’s important that you document the details of the experience promptly and as accurately as possible. This documentation can provide significant evidence for when you decide to report the incident. In the video below, memory scientist Julia Shaw discusses three things to consider when documenting an incident of discrimination in the workplace: time, type, and relevance of information. 


Unfortunately, complaints can be ignored or mishandled. For example, there was an employee who documented being sexually harassed by his manager. It was caught on tape. He took it to HR, and they viewed it. The HR department refused to move forward with consequences for the manager due to “audio issues” in the video. If this happens to you or someone you know, there are further steps you can take to get the outcome you deserve. 

The next step would be to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is responsible for investigating charges of workplace discrimination. They can take action against employers who are in violation of anti-discrimination laws. 

You also have the right to file a private lawsuit against your employer. This is typically only an option if the EEOC has not taken action or if your state doesn’t have its own anti-discrimination laws. In either case, it’s crucial to consult with an experienced attorney to determine the best course of action. 

Taking these steps can help ensure that you’re treated fairly at work and that other team members do not face the same inequality in the future. 


3. What are the negative effects of injustice at work?

Any workplace that tolerates discrimination will likely suffer from low morale and productivity. When employees feel they are being mistreated, it can impact their ability to do their jobs effectively. In some cases, it may even lead to turnover as employees look for a more supportive environment

For example, a coworker of mine was frequently missing work and working from home. We had two managers at the time. These managers could have done the right thing and kept this employee’s information private. Instead, they shared his reasons. His medical reasons. And they did so with our entire department. That coworker ended up quitting, and several others followed suit. 

Discrimination and sharing of confidential matters happened a lot at that company. As a result, their turnover rate was out of control. Their employees did not feel safe or supported. 

Furthermore, discrimination in the workplace can create an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, making it difficult for team members to work together. Ultimately, any form of prejudice is detrimental to both the individual and the organization as a whole. If left unchecked, inequality at work can erode the very foundation of a company. And while it may be difficult to stamp out all instances of discrimination, creating a zero-tolerance policy is a great first step.


4. How to prevent inequity at work

In today’s workplace, preventing inequity is more important than ever. While it can be difficult to root out all forms of discrimination in the workplace, there are intentional actions that employers can take to prevent it.

  • Be aware of your personal biases. We all have them, and they often lead to prejudice. A little self-awareness and personal responsibility can go a long way.
  • Create a diverse and inclusive environment. All employees should feel welcomed and valued. A diverse workplace includes all backgrounds and life experiences. This starts with prioritizing the recruitment of diversified personnel but doesn’t stop there. Offer training on unconscious bias and implement anti-discrimination policies. In addition, employers should ensure that all employees have equal access to opportunities—education, training programs, mentorship opportunities, and leadership roles, to name a few. When everyone feels like they belong, they’re more likely to be productive and engaged in their work.
  • Educate yourself and others about prejudice and its impact on the workplace. Put in the work, listen to others, and practice allyship. The more we understand inequity, the better equipped we are to prevent it.


When discrimination happens, everybody loses

For companies, injustice at work will hurt your bottom line. For individuals, cultures that encourage or tolerate discrimination are just plain toxic. 

We all have a role to play. We must create environments where everyone feels welcome, valued, and respected. 

If you or someone you know experiences discrimination at work, it can feel paralyzing. While speaking up can be daunting, remember you deserve to be treated with respect in the workplace—and everywhere. 

Resources for additional information and support: