How to prevent workplace discrimination in 5 ways

Last updated:
June 16, 2021
February 1, 2022
min read
Brendan McConnell
workplace discrimination
Table of contents

Identifying and finding ways to prevent workplace discrimination has become one of the top priorities for organizations and HR teams of all kinds. This is a topic that is relevant to businesses of all sizes, from small companies to the Fortune 500. And with good reason.

Preventing workplace discrimination is not only a legal requirement, it also has direct implications - positive and negative - on the well-being of your employees and, ultimately, your company.

This article will explore the issue of workplace discrimination and walk you through how to prevent it at your company.

What is workplace discrimination?

Workplace discrimination occurs when a person, or group of people, is treated unfairly or differently because on their position within one or more protected class.

Depending on your area of operations, these protected classes might include:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Skin color
  • National origin
  • Religious affiliations
  • Mental or physical disability
  • Genetic information
  • Pregnancy or parenthood
  • Relationship to somebody else with one one of these protected groups

It’s also important to make a distinction between workplace discrimination and employment discrimination. These are both rooted in the same principles, but manifest at different stages in an employee’s lifecycle.

Workplace discrimination refers to unfair or different treatment as an employee. In other words: in the daily lives and long-term career trajectory of a person working at your company.

Employment discrimination, on the other hand, refers to unfair or different treatment of candidates in the hiring process. This might include actively or unintentionally qualifying or disqualifying candidates based on their protected class.

Discrimination, in all forms, occurs when a person is treated unfairly based on who they are, where they come from, or what they believe. This type of discrimination is illegal in many parts of the world, and can land the company in hot water if uncovered.

Examples of workplace discrimination

As mentioned, workplace discrimination can manifest in a variety of different ways. The challenge that companies face is identifying and addressing the many ways that discrimination can overtly or covertly work its way into their systems and teams.

Here are some examples of workplace discrimination to point you in the right direction:

  • Excluding - or prioritizing - certain employees from promotions or pay raises, whether intentional or not.
  • Denying certain benefits or perks to people within specific protected classes.
  • Paying equally-qualified employees in the same position different salaries.
  • Withholding career growth opportunities due to a disability or parental leave.
  • Denying the use of company facilities to some employees, but not others.
  • Disproportionate terminations of specific protected classes during a round of layoffs.
  • Favoring or avoiding certain protected classes during recruitment.
  • Openly hostile behavior toward another employee based on their protected class.

As you can see, some of these examples are more obvious forms of discrimination than others. Open discrimination is much easier to see and address - if you have the policies in place - than more covert or systemic discrimination.

When thinking through how to address and prevent workplace discrimination, therefore, it’s important to identify all of the different areas and instances where it might occur. This includes everything from daily treatment and team dynamic to systems and workflows.

We’ll talk more about how to do that later in the article.

Related: 6 hiring biases your team might not be aware of

The effects of workplace discrimination

As you can imagine, workplace discrimination has major effects on the people on the receiving end of this treatment. Not only does it put the company in legal peril, it also can also negatively impact your employees’ quality of life in a variety of ways.

Among the most serious effects of workplace discrimination include:

  • Physical and emotional ailments brought on by undue stress. Experiencing workplace discrimination - especially when overt and consistent - can lead to the development of mental health issues, anxiety, low self esteem, and increased stress levels. All of these take a physical and emotional toll on employees in the long term.
  • Increased absenteeism. Unsurprisingly, workplace discrimination can lead to an increased use of sick days, float days, and vacation time due to the individual attempting to escape that treatment. This has serious impacts on individual career growth, and on team productivity.
  • Negative effects on team dynamic and collaboration. No team can work at their full capacity if overt discrimination is part of the dynamic. Organizations need to take a hard look at how their teams are organized and performing, and aim to solicit honest feedback on how things are going from all members.
  • Failure to identify and promote higher performers. Overt and systemic discrimination can make it impossible for the organization to identify and promote high performers into positions of leadership. This is a loss for the company, and will likely result in the loss of the high performer.
  • Lost productivity and innovation. Discrimination negatively impacts staff engagement, morale, culture, and the ability to hire top talent. All of these factors lead to a loss of productivity and innovation which, again, is a loss for the company.
  • Wreaking havoc on your employer brand. Employees and candidates talk. If discrimination exists, then it’s highly likely that people will talk about it in public forums like Glassdoor or LinkedIn. If this occurs, then there can be seriously negative consequences for your employer brand and recruitment activities.

Workplace discrimination isn’t just a legal consideration. It has serious implications for the well being of your employees and the future success of your organization.

It’s critical, therefore, that you take active steps to identify and prevent workplace discrimination as thoroughly as possible.

How to prevent workplace discrimination

Preventing workplace discrimination takes a concerted, top-down effort driven by a combination of policies, training, and enforcement.

Here are five key steps for preventing workplace discrimination.

1. Familiarize yourself with anti-discrimination laws

Before you can address anti-discrimination policies at your organization, you need a legal and practical definition of what discrimination means in your area of operation.

Discrimination could mean different things depending on where your company is located, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with all local requirements and laws before making any new policies.

It’s also important to note that laws can vary at the federal, state / provincial / territorial, and city levels. As such, it’s likely that there will be layers of legal consideration that you will need to review and understand.

To help make that process easier, we recommend consulting an employment lawyer who is familiar with your regional laws to help. Get them to walk you through the legal language and all of the practical considerations that go with it.

You should also obtain and review all applicable legal documentation for your company’s records. Review them with your HR and leadership team to ensure that everyone is aware of the requirements, and where your organization stands currently.

Once you’ve gone through this exercise, you should be in a good position to start editing your existing anti-discrimination policies, or create a new one altogether.

2. Create and implement a clear anti-discrimination policy

The anti-discrimination policy is the most important step in this process. This is where you clearly define and explain your company’s position on discrimination, and lay out how you intend to manage it in practical terms for all employees.

This can be a tedious process, but it’s critical to ensuring success in the long term.

First, review your existing discrimination policy with your new understanding of the applicable laws. If you don’t have a policy in place, then you can skip ahead to creating a new one.

In either case, you should clearly outline all types of behavior that will not be tolerated in the workplace. Then, define who these rules apply to, why they’re being implemented, where they apply, what their purpose is., and how they will be enforced.

This should include:

  • A clear statement of intent that explicitly prohibits discrimination in the workplace
  • Definitions and examples of what constitutes discrimination
  • An extensive list of all protected classes in all areas of operation
  • Instructions on how to report workplace discrimination
  • A detailed explanation of the process once a discrimination claim has been made
  • Any and all disciplinary actions that may occur should employees be found guilty of discriminatory behavior

Use clear and concise language throughout this discrimination policy to ensure that it is easily understood by all employees. If needed, translate the policy into all major languages of operation at your company.

Once completed, distribute the new policy to all new and existing employees through your internal and HR channels. This could include email, your HRIS, or a company intranet.

You should also make sign off on the policy mandatory for all employees to ensure that they both review the document, and make a legal commitment to its contents.

Once the policy is set, continue to stay on top of changes to anti-discrimination laws in all areas of operation and update the policy as needed.

3. Provide mandatory anti-discrimination training

Once you communicate these changes, you should implement training programs to help employees understand:

  • The new policies around workplace discrimination in legal and practical terms
  • The employers’ goals and motivations in eliminating discrimination
  • The positive effects that diversity and inclusion can have on the business and individual employees
  • How to identify and address unconscious bias or neutral decision making that may lead to unintentional discrimination

Hold mandatory training sessions to walk employees through these learning modules.These sessions can be a combination of:

  • Micro-learning, which offers bite-sized, on-demand training session to keep these concept top of mind for employees
  • Peer-to-peer learning, which involves round table discussions between employees where they are encouraged to share their experiences and examples of discrimination

This training is designed to make employees aware of discrimination in the workplace, and give them the tools needed to avoid it.

4. Analyze business processes for unintentional discrimination

As mentioned, not all discrimination is intentional. Some are based in unconscious biases or neutral decision making. In other words: people may make decisions based on their default assumptions or opinions on a given situation or person.

This can manifest in:

In all of these cases, it’s possible that existing processes favor one group of people, while unintentionally discriminating against another.

To identify instances of unintentional discrimination, we recommend that you review your company demographic data to identify areas where there may be lack of representation or potential signs of discrimination.If, for example, you discover that there is a significant under representation of women in positions of mid- to senior-leadership, then this likely points to a system or procedural issue that is biased toward male candidates.

Review your processes and procedures around recruitment, promotion, team building, and leadership selection to identify potential problem areas and instances of unconscious bias.

If needed, bring in outside help to get an objective opinion of your policies and processes, and to identify areas of improvement.

5. Stay proactive and react quickly

Managing discrimination is not a set it and forget it initiative. It requires you to actively pay attention to and review potential warning signs of discrimination in your workplace and react accordingly.It also means that your leadership team should take an active role in nurturing a workplace that is free from discrimination. To accomplish this, consider:

  • Responding to any and all complaints of discrimination in a swift and decisive manner
  • Encouraging open dialogue about discrimination from all employees, regardless of seniority
  • Actively making diversity and inclusion a key part of your company culture
  • Hiring people who share your values

Creating a diverse and inclusive workplace requires more than just an anti-discrimination policy. It means communicating and living these values on a daily basis at all levels of your organization.

Talk about these issues in your town hall and team meetings. Define your values in your internal and public-facing company messaging. Include it in your employer branding and recruitment messaging.

Make diversity and inclusion a part of you as a company, and how you position yourself to the public.

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