If you’re a locally-born, cis-gendered, middle-aged, straight white man, it might surprise you to hear that workplace discrimination against protected groups is super widespread, even though it’s also super illegal.
If you’re a woman, an immigrant, disabled, new to the workforce, job hunting as an older worker, or any type of minority, you’re probably rolling your eyes right now. Because you don’t need to be told that discrimination exists—odds are that off the top of your head, you can come up with at least a handful of times that you’ve lived it.
Illegal discrimination is a complex and systemic issue that no individual employer, lawmaker, or worker is in a position to solve. But at an individual level, it’s something we can all work to avoid.
Before we dive in to solutions for people at risk, it’s important to stress the significance and scale of this problem:
- In the USA, around 61 percent of people have suffered some form of illegal workplace discrimination
- Over 42 percent of US employees have witnessed overt racism at work
- Around 96 percent of Black Canadians say racism is an ongoing concern at work
- It’s not much better in Europe, where 55 percent of UK workers and 43 percent of French workers have endured illegal discrimination.
- 37 percent of German workers recognize that they’ve personally witnessed illegal workplace discrimination, even when they themselves weren’t the victim
And racism isn’t the only factor contributing to illegal workplace discrimination: Gender, age, sexuality, religion, (dis-)ability, citizenship, nation of origin, and family status are just a few of the other classes of people that are supposed to be protected, depending on the local jurisdiction.
No industry is immune, either. In tech, 44 percent of female founders say they’ve been harassed by colleagues and managers, while 65 percent of LGBTQ founders say they’ve received harassment.
When identities intersect, the likelihood of suffering only increases, too.
The good news? No matter who you are or where you live, you have options. You don’t have to put up with bigotry. You don’t deserve it. It’s not your fault, you’re better than it, and you have allies.
Perseverance is a form of rebellion. But it can take a toll:
The impact of illegal workplace discrimination
Your job is the number one thing that impacts your life satisfaction. If you struggle at work—especially with factors that are out of your control—it can affect every other aspect of your life. The cost is huge: It affects finances, emotions, behaviours, and often becomes inter-generational.
1 – Poor engagement and satisfaction levels
Workplace discrimination drains victims of engagement and satisfaction levels. For example, workers who report discrimination also often show poor on-the-job performance, feeling like they’re unsupported, and feeling like their opinions don’t matter.
Moreover, those who face illegal workplace discrimination are more likely to be attrition risks. Attrition is a compounding problem: It forces other employees to work harder, which burns them out, and leads to more attrition. At the same time, it makes it harder to hire, because prospective staff learn about the problems your company is experiencing, and are reluctant to get hired. (In other words: Companies that discriminate tend to have bad Glassdoor reviews)
2 – Frequent sickness absences
Research suggests there is a direct correlation between frequent absences due to sickness and illegal workplace discrimination. The hostile work environment causes people to stay home.
Although the highest level of sickness in the UK is in the public sector, research suggests that employers face a bill of £100 billion yearly due to prolonged sickness absences. High sickness absences result in weak productivity, huge expenses, and dreadful team morale.
3 – Mental health issues
Illegal workplace discrimination creates mental health issues. The causality is direct. It can manifest as:
- Decreased motivation
- Clinical depression
- Lost productivity
In 2020, over 42 percent of adults reported suffering from depression and anxiety. That’s a rise of 31 percent in the previous two years. When discrimination builds on top of the already destructive impact of the global pandemic, the outcomes for workers are atrocious.
The escalating chain of ways to stand up for your rights
In the United States, various state and federal laws protect employees from illegal workplace discrimination. But no matter who you are or where you live, you have the right to:
- Never be discriminated against because of your religion, sex, race, pregnancy, or national origin
- Report, advocate against, and participate in investigations about illegal discrimination, without any retribution or negative workplace consequences
- Receive equal pay based on equal work
If you think you might be experiencing or at risk for illegal discrimination in the workplace:
1 – Accept that there’s a problem
Even if you don’t feel like you yourself are experiencing the problem, it does exist. Consider some of your workplace interactions through this lens, and be sure to advocate for co-workers and job applicants who might become victims, even if you yourself do not.
If you are suffering from any illegal workplace discrimination, it can be challenging to accept that there’s a problem. But the worst thing you can do is ignore it.
2 – Document Everything
Investigations require evidence. And in discrimination investigations, “contemporaneous notes” are powerful evidence. Write down your experiences as soon as possible after they happen. Log them with a date and time. Keep them in a safe place.
If a confrontation becomes necessary, you will benefit from remaining cool and focused on facts. Your detailed documentation will help you to do that.
3 – Ask for solutions
Illegal discrimination is a liability for businesses, and an uncomfortable topic to discuss. Many managers would prefer to put their heads in the sand. But you cannot stop discrimination if you don’t call it out.
When you see a problem, say something. Talk to your co-workers about their experiences, and bring problems forward to management. When you see a pattern of problematic behaviours, ask for concrete actions.
At a minimum, you should expect your employer to:
- Implement a diversity and inclusion policy that encourages zero illegal discrimination
- Ensure that a process exists for the investigation of complaints, and that this process is followed for every complaint that is brought forward
- Build a culture of inclusivity by communicating regularly about discrimination, how it impacts staff, and the negative impacts it can have on a business
- Equip recruiters, hiring managers, and other interviewers with the knowledge and skills they need to conduct an unbiased hiring process
4 – Look for work elsewhere
Not all executives are willing to accept that there’s a problem. At the end of the day, no matter what the law says your rights are, you need to take care of yourself.
When you’re beaten down and abused at work, it’s easy to feel like it’s your own fault, and that your career is at an impasse. But change for the better is always possible.
If necessary, make a lateral move. Start applying for new roles, new companies, or even new industries. Your skills are valuable. Replacing you will be expensive. Sometimes that’s enough justice.
Sometimes it’s not, though.
5 – Contact an employee rights lawyer
Not all toxic work environments and micro-aggressions are litigable. But they always take a toll on your career. While your experiences are real and valid, only a qualified attorney can assess whether they have legal merit that’s worth pursuing.
If you’ve reported discrimination without seeing real action, an experienced employee rights attorney can help determine whether you have an actionable claim.
If you do, it could be a financial win for you. But it could also help to right a gross injustice for other employees at that business: Past, present, and future.
Sadly, in some workplaces, reporting illegal workplace discrimination can be challenging. However, if your company doesn’t support you and the situation doesn’t improve, you could always consider going down the legal route. Many attorneys will provide an initial 30-minute consultation at no cost, and/or provide legal services on contingency (where you pay for their time with a percentage of your winnings in the settlement).
How to assess job opportunities to avoid being put at risk
When you’re ready to move on from a toxic work environment, or if you’re simply hunting for a new role in order to advance your career, you don’t want to jump into a burning mess.
Before you apply for a job, research the employer:
- Do they have a zero-discrimination policy?
- Does their website show faces that look like yours?
- Are they upfront about their selection process?
- Do they provide accommodations for people who need them?
If you are able to, connect with current staff at the business, look up reviews from current and former employees, and ask questions in the interview process. Who will be on your team? What recent diversity initiatives have they undertaken? How have they confronted challenges in the past?
Three of the most powerful traits you can show during a job interview are self-awareness, preparation, and solution-orientation. You can highlight these aspects of yourself by asking good questions about diversity. For example:
- I noticed that the careers portal on your website shows fewer [women/people of colour/people with disabilities/etc] than the websites of your competitors like [_____] and [_____]. Are you working on strategies to build a more diverse business? As a [woman/person of colour/person with a disability/etc], if you hired me, how could I get involved with those initiatives?
No industry or employer is perfect, and the road to workplace equity is steep. But progressive employers working to build inclusive and sustainable businesses are out there. Your challenge is to find them.
In North America, the tech sector has long been dominated by white men. Statistics indicate that just 7 percent of the US tech workforce is Black, and only 29 percent are women. But the industry is maturing fast.
Most tech businesses now recognize that diversity is a competitive advantage.
They’re trying to figure out how to hire more people, faster, keep them engaged, and foster their development.
Competition for talent in tech is fierce.
And that’s not only true for engineers: There are thousands of job openings for non-technical tech workers, in sales, marketing, finance, support, operations, and beyond.
Everyone deserves a safe workplace where they feel valued, respected, and have the chance to grow. To explore your options for career growth, learn more about Careers in Software Sales today.