By the
Mind Tools
Editorial Team

Dealing With Discrimination

Addressing Unfair Treatment

Definition of discrimination.

© iStockphoto

Discrimination is the unjust treatment of different categories of people.

"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.

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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 (8)
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    H Charles19,
    Thanks for sharing your situation of working in a family business. Ideally, all businesses have clear policies and procedures for managing their staff, dealing with promotion and remuneration. So, I wonder if you can use those policies and procedures to present a persuasive arguement for yourself. Also, is there an HR / Personnel manager that you can speak to about the situation?

    In any job, it is important to have clear expectations of performance and clear boundaries of what is acceptable and not. Would it be helpful to articulate these with your boss?

    We have several articles about working in a family business which you can find using the search function above (upper right hand corner). These articles might give you a few ideas to help you move forward. One of the articles is Working in a Family Business -

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago Charles19 wrote
    Is it considered discrimination when you are treated unfairly in a family business? There are five siblings who are owners in the business. Three of them were not getting along with the President. When this happened, the president then isolated me, a son of one of the brothers upset with the president of the company. He admitted to "putting me on and island and isolating me" because he didn't agree with my father or his brothers. During this time, he moved up other 3rd gen family members into larger rolls and now wants to demote me and take away my current job. He has also given bonuses to other third gen and has forgotten me several times. Is this considered discrimination? He has also threatened to fire me a few times, when there is no cause for that as I am doing my job. Again he said he isolated me and didn't want to involve me in opportunities when I was qualified due to his relationship with my father and him being upset with him. Please let me know your thoughts. This has been very stressful on all different levels as well as emotionally damaging.
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    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?

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