6 Approachable Solutions to End Workplace Discrimination
Workplace harassment and discrimination are as common as mediocre office coffee. A study released late last year found that 42 percent of women reported experiencing gender discrimination at work; they’re also three times as likely to have experienced sexual harassment at work than men. But those numbers don’t mean it’s easy to actually do something about unfair treatment in the workplace. The reporting process can vary widely, assuming a company even has policies in place for making a complaint, and it can be hard to prove a case, even if it seems obvious.
So what can you do if you think your workplace isn’t treating every employee fairly? There are many resources available for issues large and small. Here are some ways to protect yourself and your coworkers, and some ways to make things fairer for everyone.
Ask about HR policies governing harassment and discrimination in your workplace. While the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission clearly defines many different kinds of discrimination, the process for addressing complaints can vary widely from company to company, and some smaller or newer businesses may not have a dedicated Human Resources department. HR exists to protect the company, not the interests of the worker, so it’s crucial to understand what sort of steps are required to report harassment. An overly vague — or non-existent — reporting process can be an opportunity to advocate for the company to review and revise things to be clearer and more inclusive.
Trust your gut. It’s natural to want to avoid conflict at work, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore a sense of discomfort. One easy thing to do if something feels off is to start keeping detailed records. “Make notes when something happens, type it into your phone, maybe dictate something so that you have a fresh record you can come back to,” says Paula Brantner, an employment lawyer and senior advisor for Workplace Fairness, an organization dedicated to helping workers understand and exercise their legal rights. Even if you decide not to do anything, “you still have a record of what happened as it happened.”
Don’t go it alone. Talk to an expert before you talk to anyone with authority at your company. If there’s someone you trust at work who isn’t a superior, talk to them about what’s been happening and why it worries you. A good colleague will watch for any new problems and could be a valuable witness if you file a complaint.
Find a lawyer who specializes in workplace issues. Organizations like Workplace Fairness, the National Women’s Law Center, and the American Association of University Women are all good resources, as well as groups like the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign. “Make sure that [resources] are written from a perspective that is for employees and not employers,” Brantner says. “You can almost bet that you're not the first person.” Contacting a lawyer doesn’t mean you have to file a complaint, but someone with experience can help you understand your rights, what you’re up against, and give you context that can help you decide what to do.
Stay alert. It can be tempting to stay isolated at work, to clock in and clock out without getting too involved with what’s happening in the office. But a great way to be a good coworker is to pay attention to how people interact, and to support colleagues if you see something that seems inappropriate. “Everyone should think about how they can be a good bystander, an ally, a friend,” says Brantner. “Think about how you typically respond in uncomfortable situations and come up with some strategies that you would feel comfortable using to intervene.” You don’t have to look out for only yourself; helping a coworker feel less alone in a difficult situation will make your workplace healthier.
Know your biases. This may seem simple, but generational and cultural biases have a huge impact on how we deal with conflict. If a junior staff member comes to you with a problem, don’t brush it off because you dealt with something similar early in your career. Don’t ignore a rude comment because “everyone knows” a particular manager has a crude sense of humor. Don’t assume that someone has access to the same whisper networks that you do. As Brantner says, “Think about how you can respect that standards have changed and you may have internalized a lot of what you had to go through and put up with. We don't want to go back to those days or have those attitudes be the bar.”
Ask for transparency. In an interview with QZ, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke said that less secrecy will be critical to reducing harassment. ”I think such conflicts would also be much easier in the workplace if there were more policies that dealt with transparency around sexual-harassment policies and standards.” Brantner agrees. “Historically personnel actions have been private, and if you bring it into the legal setting you've got arbitration agreements that force a lot of the lawsuits that would otherwise be public into arbitration, and you have settlements with non-disclosure agreements” that can protect bad actors. This is a tricky and still evolving area of policy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask for more information in your own organization.