Subtle Employment Discrimination is Still Discrimination

March 20, 2017
The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford

When it comes to discrimination in the workplace, times have changed. No longer are there signs blatantly excluding classes of workers based on some immutable characteristic such as nationality, gender, religion, or color. In contrast to the minefield of subtle discrimination at play today, these overt expressions of discrimination almost appear to be preferable. At least, the reasoning goes, in this case, you could tell absolutely that the discrimination was in fact based on some immutable characteristic.

While discrimination laws have changed for the better, this has not necessarily meant that people have changed for the better. Discrimination is as prevalent today as it was back in the sign days, only now, it is much more subtle and therefore infinitely harder to confirm that it is in fact due to bias against a person based on their characteristic and not some neutral, perfectly rational reason.

Subtle, however, does not mean invisible. It is still possible to recognize and identify subtle discrimination. You just have to know what you’re looking for. Here are five less than obvious signs that someone is being discriminated against in the workplace.

1) Marginalization: This kind of discrimination can happen to anyone. It can look like an older employee, perhaps nearing retirement, being given a lateral position, which in reality, has fewer duties and responsibilities. It can be a working mother not being chosen to travel to conferences or take professional development courses. It can be assigning a female staffer to be the designated note-taker. All of these situations can have a legitimate reason that is non-discriminatory. Then again, all can be based on biases against older workers, working mothers, and women.

2) Chatter: Comments by managers, coworkers, and even clients can also be a subtle form of discrimination. Examples can include things like male coworkers commenting on a working mom’s breaks to pump breast milk or a supervisor commenting to an African-American employee on how eloquent they are in their speech. Comments like these have no place in the workplace and should not be tolerated.

3) Lowered Expectations: Say you have two workers who are only separated by their ethnic backgrounds. Both are excellent employees, but what if one continues to get the more challenging assignments while the other is told he is not ready for the commitment? Even if the manager is not consciously discriminating against one in favor of the other, perhaps the manager is allowing his perception of desire for work cloud his judgment. Perhaps, the worker getting fewer assignments comes from a culture in which it is impolite to advocate on their own behalf for work. This is classic subtle discrimination.

4) Gender Roles: When perceptions of how a gender is supposed to act cloud decisions being made with respect to employment or work assignments, there is discrimination. Take for example, the female attorney who is chastised for being “too nice” in a deposition. Or, a male teacher being told he was not being sensitive enough to the feelings of students. It can take the form of assigning members of each gender to pre-determined roles, such as the man is appointed leader while the woman is appointed to take notes. Again, subtle but discrimination nonetheless.

5) It’s the Little Things: Oftentimes, there are a multitude of small instances that when put together and viewed in larger context equal a fairly blatant issue of discrimination. For example, in a recent case out of New York, an African-American supervisor who was terminated alleged discrimination pointing to instances in which his supervisor claimed the supervisor was unable to “police” his African-American employees, berated the supervisor for using a color background in a presentation claiming that white is better than color, and told the supervisor’s replacement to dig up further bad information about the supervisor after he sued for discrimination. Small pieces = larger picture.

If you feel that you are being subject to subtle discrimination, your first step should be to contact competent employment counsel. Contact us today to see how we can help.