Facing Workplace Discrimination? Seven Ways to Address It

Standing up against workplace discrimination in a way that provides the best chance of a positive resolution takes courage. Here are some approaches you can take.

A businesswoman holds her hand up in a "stop" gesture.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Enduring discrimination in your workplace is a draining and distressing ordeal. You dread going to work because you know what awaits you and are relieved to go home at the end of the workday just to escape the toxic, harmful behavior. Living even one day with discrimination by supervisors, co-workers or others in the workplace is unacceptable; trying to live with it day after day after day is unsustainable. Know that you need not and should not accept such wrongful — and unlawful — conduct in the workplace. You can take action to stop the discrimination and hold accountable those who treat you negatively because of your race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or other legally protected characteristics.

It takes courage and thoughtfulness to stand up against workplace discrimination in a way that provides the best chance of a positive resolution. Here are seven approaches you can consider taking if you believe you’re being discriminated against at work. It would be wise to discuss your situation with an experienced employment attorney before taking the below approaches.

1. Tell the perpetrator to stop (if it’s safe to do so).

Especially if the discrimination that you are facing is in the form of harassment, often the best first step is to directly tell the perpetrator to stop (if and only if you think it is safe to do so). Your objection to the discriminatory behavior puts the perpetrator on direct notice that you view their conduct as wrong, offensive and discriminatory and that you want the conduct to stop and not happen again.

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Be mindful that, unfortunately, even when you voice an objection, the wrongful conduct may not stop and, in fact, may escalate. But the fact that you directly objected to the wrongful conduct in the first place may make it harder for the employer to later claim that the main perpetrator’s behavior continued because the perpetrator simply did not know they were offending anyone.

2. Take notes and make a record.

Claiming that others discriminated against you and proving they did are different things. You want to make sure that you can do the latter if you’re going to do the former. Keep a record and make notes about discriminatory incidents or comments, including dates, times, locations and details of what was said/done. Note the names of anyone who may have seen or heard the conduct. Preserve any emails, memos, text messages, social media messages, voicemails or other communications that reflect or relate to the discrimination. 

The more evidence you have, the more likely it is that your claims will be treated with the seriousness and action they deserve.

A few cautions:

  • This work should typically be done outside of work time and the office
  • Preserve only communications that you are entitled to have in your possession
  • Be mindful about emailing documents from work to a personal email account, as some employers can and will check such records (using your phone camera to preserve non-confidential communications is sometimes a better option).

3. Review company policies and practices.

Your company may have established policies against workplace discrimination and procedures for reporting any violative incidents. These are often found in employee handbooks or human resources (HR) manuals or posted in a common area like a break room. Understanding and following those procedures (as best as you can under the given circumstances) is an important part of your initial effort to address the issue and obtain relief.

4. Report your concerns to HR.

Report your concerns to your employer’s human resources (HR) department. If possible, make your report in writing. Schedule a meeting with your company's HR manager or department to discuss what is happening. Bring your documented evidence and be prepared to describe each incident in detail. HR should investigate your complaint and take appropriate action. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’ll do so.

It is usually wise to document each of your verbal complaints to HR. Do not rely on HR to do it.

For example, after verbally reporting your concerns to an HR representative, you could send HR an email thanking them for discussing your concerns with you pertaining to the harassment and discrimination you have experienced and reiterating your expectation that remedial action will be taken.

5. Share your concerns with a trusted colleague.

Dealing with discrimination is a heavy burden. Share your concerns with a trusted colleague who can offer support and solace. Importantly, they may also share your concerns or have additional insights and knowledge about behavior and incidents that support your claims.

6. Try to keep your cool.

Your story deserves to be heard, your complaints need to be addressed, and those responsible for discriminatory conduct should be held accountable. While you should not stay silent about workplace discrimination, you should also speak up in a way most likely to get the results you want. Try to remain professional, keep doing your job and avoid personal confrontations in favor of reporting and addressing the discrimination through your company hierarchy, relevant authorities and legal action, as discussed here.

7. Meet with an experienced employment attorney to understand your rights and explore your options.

State and federal law prohibit workplace discrimination. Some types of claims allow or require filing a charge or complaint with a particular government authority, such as the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and equivalent state agencies. With some types of claims, an employee can proceed directly to filing a civil lawsuit against the employer, depending on the jurisdiction. Consulting with an experienced employment attorney can clarify your options and alert you to time limitations for filing charges or actions, some of which are very short.

By discussing your claims and concerns with an employment attorney before taking any action, you can gain a better understanding of your rights. You can also receive an objective assessment of the strength of your claims and an explanation of the available options, including trying to negotiate a resolution.

It’s important to understand that meeting with or hiring an attorney doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll pursue a lawsuit against your employer. That may or may not be the best course of action, given your situation or objectives, or you may not have a viable claim. But meeting with an attorney can help you shift from feeling like a helpless victim of wrongful conduct to taking charge of your own life in the workplace.

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This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Brittany Deane Salyers, J.D.
Employment Attorney, Halunen Law

Brittany Deane Salyers’ dedication to employment law runs deep. Recognizing that work is a central factor in most people’s lives, she knows that unlawful treatment in a workplace can have devastating repercussions. Lives and livelihoods are immeasurably impacted. Brittany is committed to holding employers accountable and helping her clients recoup what was lost and achieve justice. She represents labor and employment law clients at the state and federal levels in litigation, mediation and complex legal negotiations. Having been a victim of harassment herself, she appreciates the courage it takes to take on an employer. She brings compassion, empathy, an acute understanding of the legal system and fierce determination to defend what’s right.