Dealing With Discrimination

Addressing Unfair Treatment

Definition of discrimination.

Learn how to deal with discrimination.

© iStockphoto/IvelinRadkov

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." – Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., American civil rights activist.

Have you ever experienced the "sting" of discrimination? This might have occurred in a job interview, when someone asked personal questions about your health, marital status, or beliefs. Or you might suspect that you have been passed over for a promotion because of your cultural background or your age.

In situations like these, there could have been legitimate reasons why you missed out. However, if you think that you've been discriminated against, it's important to know what your options are, so that you can take appropriate action. 

In this article, we'll look at what discrimination is. We'll then explore what you can do if you feel that you've been discriminated against, and we'll examine some of the things you should think about before speaking up.


This article is meant as a general guide only. The laws defining discrimination, as well as which groups are protected from discrimination, vary widely around the world and even from region to region within a country. Therefore, you will need to research the laws in your region, state, or country before taking action.

Discrimination Defined

The Oxford Dictionary defines discrimination as "the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex." The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as "the act, practice, or instance of discriminating categorically rather than individually."

Generally, discrimination can be defined as the unfavorable treatment of someone based on having or not having a certain characteristic, cultural history, or other perceived difference. But, the groups that are legally protected against discrimination vary widely around the world.

For instance, while it's illegal to discriminate in the United States based on age, gender, pregnancy, race, ethnicity, disability, religion or lack of religion, and genetic information, it may technically not be illegal (on a federal level) to discriminate based on other factors. However, each state has different laws that protect different groups.

Other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, widen legal protection to include discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender reassignment, and marriage or civil partnership.

South Africa's Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (PEPUDA) is even more specific. This act prohibits what is known as "hate speech," as well as discrimination against race, gender or sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, and language.

Possible Examples of Discrimination

Here are several situations that illustrate what discrimination might look like. However, it's important to remember that, while discrimination can come in many forms, there can be legitimate reasons for the other people's behavior in some of these situations.

  • Sue, aged 56, just found out that she didn't get a job that she was perfectly qualified for. Instead, the firm hired a man, aged 25, just out of college with far less experience and fewer qualifications. It's possible that Sue could be a victim of age or gender discrimination.
  • Gwyneth, a long-time employee of her organization, informed her boss that she's pregnant. Three days later, her boss told her that she was being let go due to budget cutbacks – however, she was the only person who lost her job. It's possible that Gwyneth could be a victim of pregnancy discrimination.
  • Saajid is required by his faith to pray five times per day. However, his boss has refused to let him take breaks for his religious obligations; so, Saajid is forced to pray in secret. When his boss discovers what he's doing, he's fired. It's possible that Saajid could be a victim of religious discrimination.
  • Gabriela has applied for a job as a bus driver and is surprised to find out that there's a height restriction. The restriction seems irrelevant to the position, and Gabriela suspects that the company is using the restriction to screen out women, who are often shorter than men. It's possible that Gabriela could be a victim of gender discrimination.

As you can see from these scenarios, there are many ways that discrimination can manifest itself in the workplace.

Again, however, it's possible that there could be a reasonable explanation for the perceived discrimination in some of these situations. For example, in Sue's case, the candidate who was awarded the job in her place might have a certification or credential that she didn't know about, or Sue may have failed to highlight specific skills and experience in the interview.

Taking Action on Discrimination

Dealing with discrimination in the workplace can be stressful, frustrating, and emotionally traumatic, and deciding whether or not to report it is a highly personal choice.

Let's look at what you can do if you feel that you're a victim of discrimination.

Make Sure That Discrimination is Involved

As we've already highlighted, a person's perception of events can make them feel that they've been discriminated against when this might not actually be the case.

Therefore, before you take any action against a person or organization, you need to make sure that you have actually been a victim of discrimination.

To do this, take a step back and look at the situation from several different perspectives – you need to determine, as objectively as possible, if you have been discriminated against, or if you've simply jumped to conclusions. (It can sometimes be quite hard to prove that discrimination has occurred.)

Think about the definitions of discrimination that we highlighted above, and compare these with your experience. Also, check your local, state, and national laws on discrimination, as well as your organization's discrimination policy, if it has one. Could what you've experienced amount to discrimination? Or could there be a valid explanation for what happened?

You could also speak to a lawyer or legal professional if this is practical. (These may be able to offer you a free or low-cost initial consultation or meeting.) However, bear in mind that it may be in their interests to take you on as a client as they may earn a fee even if your long-term interests are damaged – so don't make any final decisions until you have considered the possible consequences of taking action, in the next step.

In some countries, you may be able to get free advice from government and not-for-profit organizations, such as the Citizen's Advice Bureau in the U.K. or the Fair Work Ombudsman in Australia. Use these services if you can – they'll give you a good starting point for thinking things through.

Consider the Consequences

In some countries, it's illegal to victimize someone for reporting discrimination, regardless of whether discrimination is proven or not. However, it's still worth considering that there might be unpleasant negative consequences if you report discrimination, however unfair and unjust those consequences might be.

This can be a harsh reality in some countries and some organizations, and in some instances this victimization can be unintentional. For example, a manager may not consider you for a new project because, subconsciously, she perceives you as a "trouble-maker."

Find out how far you are protected from these consequences by your country or state's law, and discreetly find out what has happened to other people who have reported discrimination in your organization.

On the other hand, think about the consequences of not reporting discrimination. An organization's senior managers may not realize that there is a discriminatory culture within it, and reporting discrimination can give the organization an opportunity to change. This can have a positive effect for all staff further down the line.

Gather Evidence

If you decide to press ahead with your complaint, you need to gather as much evidence as you can about the act of discrimination. This could include obtaining copies of any documents related to what has happened – for example, emails, a written warning, a performance appraisal, or even a termination letter.

Bear in mind, however, that gathering evidence can be challenging, because discrimination often comes in the form of actions or conversations that are difficult to document. For instance, how can you document that you didn't receive a promotion because of gender or ethnicity, when your boss claims a nondiscriminatory reason, such as occasional tardiness? In such cases, there is often no hard evidence of discrimination, and it may be very difficult to prove.

In situations like this, it's a good idea to write down what happened and when, or to keep a diary if the discrimination is ongoing. This will give you important evidence if you file a discrimination complaint against a person or your organization.

Write down in as much detail as possible what the discrimination was, when the event happened (with the date and time), who did what, where it happened, who witnessed it, and what your response to it was.

Also, be careful not to break any laws while you gather this evidence – check local regulations, and get legal advice first, if possible. Also, avoid using the employer's resources when gathering information, so that you can't be accused of misusing these.

Reporting Discrimination

When you're ready to report discrimination, follow your employer's grievance procedure or discrimination policy, if it has one, and follow the guidance that you have received from any legal professionals that you've contacted. Most large organizations have a dedicated human resources professional to handle these types of issues; if this is the case, it's often best to consult this person first, before making a formal complaint.

Make sure that you're clear that what you're reporting is unwelcome and unacceptable to you. Be assertive   and firm about this; discrimination can go unpunished if the victim minimizes the issue, or makes it sound less traumatic than it was. Use the evidence that you've gathered to back up your claims.

If you find that your organization does little to address your complaint, you might need to take the issue to a government or regulatory agency, or, again, consult with a legal professional.

Coping with Discrimination

In some cases, you might not be able to resolve a discrimination dispute quickly, if at all. Or, you might experience reprisals from your boss, colleagues, and organization as a whole if you raise a complaint. If this happens, it's important to know how to cope with the emotional pain, stress, and hardship that you might experience.

For instance, discrimination will likely cause you to feel angry. While your anger may be justified, it's important not to let it get the best of you or affect others you work with. Use anger management   strategies to channel your anger and use that energy productively. Also, learn how to manage your emotions   effectively.

Studies show that positive social support can reduce feelings of stress and isolation for victims of discrimination. Reach out to friends and family members to talk about your experiences. Their support can give you the strength you need to deal with what has happened. You may also be able to get emotional support from not-for-profit organizations, depending on what's available online or in your region – use these services if you can.

Key Points

Discrimination is loosely described as unfavorable treatment of someone based on a certain general characteristic or perceived difference. Discrimination can take place based on race, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, ethnicity, religion, health or disability, a belief or creed, or pregnancy.

If you believe that you've been discriminated against, first make sure that it is discrimination by checking your organization's policy or local, state, or federal laws, and by looking at your situation from different perspectives. Then gather sufficient evidence before you make a complaint.

Bear in mind that there may be negative consequences if you report discrimination. Make sure that you're aware of these risks before you take any action, and that you know what you'll do if these risks materialize.

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Comments (6)
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Jerry

    I'm sorry to hear that you didn't get the job - it's always disappointing.

    About your question, and I quote from the article, "As we've already highlighted, a person's perception of events can make them feel that they've been discriminated against when this might not actually be the case.

    Therefore, before you take any action against a person or organization, you need to make sure that you have actually been a victim of discrimination.

    To do this, take a step back and look at the situation from several different perspectives – you need to determine, as objectively as possible, if you have been discriminated against, or if you've simply jumped to conclusions. (It can sometimes be quite hard to prove that discrimination has occurred.)"

    Do you have proof that discrimination took place? If not, I'm not sure how you will 'build' your case?

  • Jerry wrote Over a month ago
    I applied for a Sales position with a high tech IT Infastructure Company.
    What I was told in the first interview with the Sales Manager, was vastly
    different from the second interview with the Vice President.
    I was told that I would have a second interview with the Vice President on the same day, but after meeting with the Sales Manager they explained to me that the VP could not meet with me that day & instead
    the second interview took place 2 weeks later.
    The VP had the time to meet with 8 other candidates that day but not
    with me, even though I was scheduled to have that second interview
    immediately after the first one ended. The recruiter set the meetings
    to run concurrently.
    I'm not sure if I was discriminated against because of age, but I definitely was lied to about what the position "paid" from one or both of
    these representatives for this company.
    The Sales Manager said that the salary was for 12 months with a possibility for that to be extended to 18 months then it moves to
    straight commission.
    The Vice President started out by telling me he only had 30 minutes
    to meet with me with me that day after I waited 2-weeks, then he told me
    in the interview that the Salary was only for 6-months.
    The company finally responded by saying they had chosen someone
    else who I believe is younger than I am.
    I sense discrimination & the lying about what the job pays & the whole
    experience makes me feel that it's possible that I may have a case.
    Please advise!

    The VP told
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi bmashoko,
    I think you're very right about the courage part of the equation if you decide to pursue discrimination. It would not be easy and it's rare for the issue to be so black and white that it's easy to prove. That's why people get away with it! And that's also why we need to encourage and support people in our workplaces to 1)help prevent it from happening in the first place, and 2) to help make things right if/when it is happening. I think bystanders have an obligation in all of this as well. And if more people spoke out or made it clear that discrimination (or bullying or other poor behavior) will not be tolerated we might be able to make a significant dent in the amount going on.

    I like the fact that you are rethinking your own perspective and trying to block out what you learned through the grapevine. Judging a person based on your own interactions with him/her is far more reliable than what may or may not have taken place somewhere else.

    It's an interesting and challenging issue and if we continue to challenge ourselves to live up to the standard of fairness that we would want for ourselves, maybe we can start to change things ever so slightly. It's worth the effort I think.

  • bmashoko wrote Over a month ago
    Cold feet!!

    I get the sense from this article that it takes real guts, technical expertise and time to go ahead with a case of discrimination within an organisation. I have also read articles that say whistle blowers often find themselves out of a job even if they had a case. So, besides overcoming potential personal prejudice and objectively determining whether I have a case, (no mean task when one is outraged and angry), I would also need to satisfy myself that the politics, culture and systems of the organisation are really supportive of fair investigations before making my life more difficult than it already is.

    Prejudices are very real and can even follow someone wherever they go. Recently a work colleague who recently joined my organisation had a conflict with his manager and somehow rumours were circulating that he also had a grievance against his former employer. Although my interaction with him so far suggest that he is competent in his job, I had to silently rebuke myself for momentarily wondering whether his history puts him in the category of a habitual troublemaker!!

    It is probably less traumatic to take on an airline, restaurant or some other external party for discrimination in providing a service than one's own organisation but one has to find the best way of protecting one's rights if they are violated.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi catlucke

    Welcome to the forums - it's great to see you here.

    It can be a challenge for a person to try and prove that he was discriminated against when passed over for promotion. If budgetary constraints are the motivation for the person being passed over, I think it might be particularly difficult to prove, but I am not a legal expert and I may be totally wrong. Any other reason for an employee being passed over for promotion will also have to be eliminated to prove discrimination.

    I'm not sure if that answers your question, but if there is anything else you need help with, please let me know.

    Kind regards
  • catlucke wrote Over a month ago
    Is it discrimination if they chose the less qualified over the expensive qualified older person due to budget?

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