Dealing With Discrimination
Addressing Concerns About Inequality
Tackling unfair discrimination is everyone's responsibility. It involves reducing the likelihood of discriminatory treatment, recognizing when it happens, and knowing the right way to respond. It's the ethical and humane way to behave.
Taking a hard line on discrimination can have many other benefits for your organization's culture, reputation, and overall success as well.
Preventing and addressing unfair discrimination is also a legal requirement in many parts of the world. And employers and managers have additional responsibilities to reduce the risk of discrimination, and to deal effectively with any complaints or concerns.
Dealing with discrimination effectively is an "everyone problem."
In this article, we explore ways to guard against discrimination at work. We also explain how to recognize discrimination when it occurs, and what you can do to address it.
Is it Discrimination?
Unfair discrimination comes in various forms, and it affects people in different ways. Not all countries have anti-discrimination laws, but those that do usually define a set of "protected" characteristics and make it illegal to treat someone differently because of these characteristics.
Race, age, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and disability are among the most common protected characteristics – but other aspects of someone's identity, such as gender reassignment, married status or military service may also be covered by the law
For detailed information about what is and isn't classed as discrimination, see our article, What Is Discrimination?
Guarding Against Discrimination
The best way to promote fairness and equality at work, and to uphold the law, is to be proactive against unfair discrimination. This involves creating an environment in which mutual respect is prioritized, the benefits of diversity are recognized, and there's zero tolerance for bullying and bad behavior of any kind. Everyone should be made feel safe to raise a concern, and confident that any issues will be addressed sensitively and effectively.
There are many ways to embrace and accommodate people's differences – helping to ensure that there's little place for unfair treatment. For example, making appropriate adjustments for people's disabilities is a very visible way to show that you give everyone the same chance to thrive. These measures could include providing application forms in Braille or audio formats, or making all parts of your building wheelchair-accessible.
For everyone, good communication, trusted relationships, and high ethical standards are key. In addition, people at every level should know exactly what unfair discrimination is, and how it's dealt with.
Here are four things you, as a manager or co-worker, can do to help to build a workplace culture that actively guards against discrimination:
1. Be Alert to Discrimination
However much you trust or like the people you work with, and however strong your company's stated values are, never assume that unfair discrimination can't or won't happen in your organization.
If you're a manager, don't be afraid to deal with concerns or complaints, if they arise, as they can often be resolved informally, or through well-established processes.
2. Understand the Anti-Discrimination Laws that Apply to You
While the core principles of fairness may be easy enough to guess, the details of legislation can be complex and varied.
For example, in some places, age discrimination is defined within particular age ranges. And some territories give protection to applicants for employment as well as to those already on the team – while others don't.  
So, familiarize yourself with the relevant legal rights for both employers and employees, and check that your information is up to date.
Unions, local authorities, professional bodies, and legal organizations can also help you to understand all the rules and regulations that apply to you and your organization.
3. Use Organizational Policies and Procedures to Combat Discrimination
To uphold legislation, and to maintain high ethical standards, it may be appropriate to create an overall policy for your organization – perhaps a "non-discrimination," "equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I)," or "dignity at work" policy.
This document should outline exactly why equal treatment is necessary and how you go about achieving it – including the process for dealing with any discrimination complaints. It should also identify individual responsibilities and points of contact.
Remember to review and update your policy document, regularly, and give everyone access to it. And check that potential discrimination is covered in all other relevant policies, too – such as those for recruitment, pay and conditions, and entitlement to take leave. Make sure that all the rules and procedures you have in place treat everyone fairly.
For example, in your recruitment policy, stipulate that you don't use descriptors like "highly experienced" or "man/woman" unless those really are requirements for the role. And explain how you advertise jobs in a fair way – for example, by advertising across a range of different online and offline channels that engage diverse audiences.
In addition, if you're providing extra support to people with certain characteristics – for instance, prioritizing people from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds during a recruitment drive – spell out your legitimate reasons for doing so.
4. Empower Everyone to Stand Up Against Discrimination
Make it difficult for unfair discrimination to go unchallenged by empowering everyone to call it out when they see it – without fear of reprisal. Promote open and honest conversations. Help your people to communicate clearly to avoid misunderstandings, and lead by example, by communicating to a high standard yourself.
Consider setting up an Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), to give people opportunities to build relationships, and to discuss any issues within safe workplace communities. These can also be used to promote diversity. However, to have the desired impact, ERGs themselves need to be set up and run, in accordance with anti-discrimination rules.
Make use of your one-on-ones, too. Give your people the time and space needed to raise any concerns. And, listen carefully and considerately to anything that comes up during these meetings. Then show that you're taking their concerns seriously, by following the routes to resolution that we clarify in the next section.
Defeating unfair discrimination is a vital step toward creating a working environment that's safe for everyone.
Mind Tools Club members and corporate licensees can listen to our Expert Interview with Amy Edmondson, in which she gives some tips on how you can achieve this from her book "The Fearless Organization."
Handling Discrimination Complaints and Concerns
If an instance of possible discrimination is raised, first check whether an informal discussion is enough to resolve it.
If this isn't sufficient, and someone decides to make a formal complaint, follow the three stages below to deal with it effectively. (A detailed version of this process should be included in your main anti-discrimination or ED&I policy.)
1. Register and Allocate the Complaint
This is a vital first step and demonstrates just how seriously you are taking the matter, and that you've started the process to address it.
The complainant's line manager is usually the best person to take on the matter initially (unless it's about them), with support from HR. Depending on the nature of the complaint, an independent investigator might be appointed; and, in some cases, organizations may decide to bring in an external consultant.
But, whoever's in charge of managing the complaint, they should create a record of it and begin documenting the process of trying to resolve it. Be careful to maintain confidentiality at every stage. For example, by keeping records secure using password protections, holding meetings in private, and asking everyone to respect the confidentiality of others involved.
While it's important to respond to discrimination claims quickly, it's also crucial that you give yourself enough time to investigate them, and to allow all the relevant parties to have their say.
2. Gather Information
The person handling the complaint should talk to the person who raised it and get the full story from their perspective. They need to find out:
- What was said and done.
- When and where it happened.
- What the context of the incident was.
- Whether any other people were involved or witnessed the incident who could supply extra information.
It's also important to record how the complainant feels as a result of their experience, and what the personal impact on them has been.
The person gathering information should then seek the same information from other parties or witnesses involved. It may be necessary to reveal the identity of the claimant to these people. However, it's important that ground rules are laid down for how the different parties interact with each other while the investigation is happening, to avoid anyone feeling intimidated and maintain confidentiality.
The person in charge of the complaint should make detailed and accurate notes throughout. Even though the process may be an internal one, at this stage, these notes may be used in any future legal proceedings that arise.
The complaint manager should also collect any physical evidence, such as documents or messages, in order to pin down the facts of the situation.
Keep an open mind as you gather evidence, and show sensitivity to all involved. Be wary of assuming that people are "guilty until proven innocent." But also make sure that you don't blame the complainant – even subconsciously – for "upsetting the status quo."
3. Decide on the Best Route to Resolution
When the complaint has been fully investigated, you need to decide to what extent, if any, unfair discrimination has taken place – and what you'll do to remedy it.
Remember to consider the impact of what's happened, however much intent there may have been to cause it.
Access all the support you need to get your decision right – from within your organization or by getting external advice (while still maintaining full confidentiality).
If you decide that unfair discrimination has not taken place, you'll need to explain this fully to the claimant, and to anyone else involved in the investigation. You'll then need to support people to feel settled and happy again in their job – and perhaps also to restore harmony to your team.
If discrimination has occurred and resulted in unfair treatment, and it's been as a result of policies or processes, you'll need to put plans in place to change them, while keeping the claimant fully informed.
However, if a person – rather than a policy – has been the cause of proven discrimination, consult your disciplinary policy. It's vital to follow this process to the letter, to ensure fairness on all sides.
Depending on your policy and local laws, and whether the claimant has made a formal complaint, the process from here may involve disciplinary action up to and including termination.
In some cases, there may be informal ways for people to make amends for their behavior and start to rebuild relationships, whether or not other sanctions are necessary.
Your disciplinary policy should also explain how to record the outcome of the investigation for future reference.
The claimant may decide that an in-house process is insufficient to handle their concern, or disagree with your decisions and choose to take things further – beyond even your own appeals or grievances processes. They may, for example, begin their own legal case, or apply to an employment tribunal.
When this happens, ensure that you get all the legal and professional advice you need to engage fully with the process. Within reason, you'll need to allow people from outside your organization to access key information and evidence – but make sure that you understand all the laws relating to this.
Your professional adviser will help you to work with external agencies, and to manage any risks that you or your organization may face as a result of the case.
Standing up to unfair discrimination is everyone's responsibility, but employers and managers have special requirements to guard against it which are often enshrined in law.
The best way to guard against the damage of discrimination is to create a culture of trust, mutual respect, and open communication.
Make sure that you understand all the anti-discrimination laws and regulations that apply to your organization, and use your own policies to put them into practice.
If a discrimination issue arises, start by exploring informal ways to resolve it. If this isn't possible, you may need to handle a formal discrimination claim. This will likely involve the following three steps:
- Registering and allocating the complaint.
- Gathering information.
- Deciding on the best route to resolution.
If it's not possible to achieve a resolution by using your own internal policies and procedures, the claimant may wish to involve an external investigator. If this happens, seek professional advice in order to protect those involved, your organization, and yourself.
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