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Is Workplace Discrimination as Obvious as We Think?

The definition of workplace discrimination can make it seem like it’s easy to spot. After all, the “unfair treatment of employees based on prejudices” can refer to an employer refusing to hire, demoting, segregating, or firing someone based on their appearance or another protected class. Yet the reality of most workplace discrimination cases is that they aren’t obvious at all. Instead, discriminatory behaviors and practices pervade a workplace quietly, in ways that make employees question if it’s really discrimination at all.

Examples of “Less Than Obvious” Workplace Discrimination

Workplace discrimination can take many shapes and forms. It could be blatantly sexist questions during a job interview or firing someone when he or she turns 50. Discrimination can also, however, be less blatant to coworkers and even the victim. Learning how to recognize all types of workplace discrimination can help you stand up for your rights. Three examples of non-obvious discrimination are as follows:

  1. Word-of-mouth employee references. Letting employees recommend their friends might seem like a good idea, until an employer is only looking at applicants from the same racial pool. Hiring new employees from the same group or demographic could infringe upon anti-discrimination rights.
  2. Want ads for “Recent College Grads.” These posters may seem like they simply want to offer opportunities to students fresh out of college, but what they’re really doing is discriminating against older job applicants. This type of language says that the employer isn’t interested in hiring older applicants.
  3. Failing to trust employees with certain tasks. Even if an employer promotes a worker, if the employer doesn’t entrust greater responsibilities with the employee, it could be a sign of discrimination. Not trusting employees with tasks for reasons unrelated to skill and career level could point to unfair biases.
  4. Getting job assignments based on a protected class. If an employer regularly assigns certain individuals to certain locations or clients based on race, age, gender, or religion, it is a type of discrimination. Examples include assigning a black real estate agent to a low-income neighborhood or referring an Islamic client to a Muslim salesperson.

Your employer asking you to take specific tests (e.g., a reading and writing aptitude test) that your coworkers don’t have to take and losing your job for medical or disability reasons are also examples of workplace discrimination that may masquerade as “normal” business practices. Any time an employment action feels inappropriate to you, trust your gut. You could be the victim of workplace discrimination.

How to Recognize Inconspicuous Workplace Discrimination

Many employers will go to great lengths to conceal discriminatory practices or keep them under the radar. Others might not even realize their actions are discriminatory if they don’t fit the mold of threats or intimidation. It’s up to you, the employee, to stay vigilant and recognize signs of workplace discrimination – including those that aren’t obvious. Here are a few common signs of an employer that’s guilty of discrimination:

  • High employee turnover rate
  • Lack of diversity in the staff
  • Refusing interviews to certain classes of people
  • Work assignments related to workers’ gender, race, etc.
  • Racist or demeaning communication style
  • Fixed roles for certain genders or ages
  • Unfair increase or decrease in workload or responsibilities
  • Disciplining or criticizing only certain groups of employees

It can be difficult to detect subtle forms of discrimination that are not blatant threats or intimidation. If you feel that an employer or coworker is discriminating against you, even if you don’t have hard evidence, investigate the situation. Work with your human resources department, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and a workplace discrimination lawyer to find out if what you’re experiencing qualifies as workplace discrimination. If so, you could be eligible for restitution.

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