Identifying racism in the office can be difficult. (For example, did you get left out of a lunch because of your race or ethnicity—or did your harried boss simply forget to add your name to the emailed invitation?) "The first time you're not invited to lunch with the team may be nothing," admits employment attorney J. Bryan Wood. "But the third time—or the lunch where the timeline for the big project gets discussed—matters to your success," and it may be time to take action.
Your first step, of course, is doing your best to determine whether you are, in fact, the target of racism. Not only can it be difficult to detect, as stated above, but, "the line between legal and illegal is really fuzzy—and racism can blur itself very well with all sorts of seemingly benign behavior," says employment attorney Robert Odell. But that doesn't mean there aren't ways to ferret it out. Odell suggests asking yourself a series of questions to determine whether you might be a racial target:
- Are you being singled out for non-work related reasons?
- Do certain rules apply to you but not to white employees?
- Are you the frequent target of inappropriate, racially-oriented jokes?
- Are such "jokes" directed at white employees as well?
- Does your employer primarily hire one racial group?
- Are the promotions going to all racial groups or only to white employees?
Your answers to these questions, Odell says, could reveal whether you're being targeted, as all of these actions are discriminatory in nature and very much illegal.
You should do your best to view these situations without bias—which is a tall order, of course. But, "everyone has biases that affect how we perceive events and recall information," Wood points out, and with enough reflection, "you may realize your perceptions of what's happening were shaded by your own biases."
If you are confident that you have been targeted, take action. "First, make every effort to document the undesirable behavior," Odell instructs. For example, if your boss was sending out racially offensive emails, print them out or save them to a private email account. If you don't document this behavior, Odell warns, "proving racism becomes significantly more difficult," especially if you end up fired.
Depending on your comfort level, take the time to talk to coworkers who may also be victims of the racial discrimination you've experienced, or who, if not, may be able and willing to corroborate your story. Odell says that these coworkers could become witnesses down the line, or give you more evidence to later bring to human resources.
Wood warns that it may behoove you to address your concerns with someone who can communicate directly to the person targeting you rather than move straight to human resources. "Jumping the chain of command or involving human resources may be perceived negatively by the person you hope to influence," he warns.
But if that scenario isn't an option in your workplace, it is time to take your concerns to HR, Odell says. "Do not blast the company with a scathing email," he says. "You want to give the company the opportunity to put an end to the discrimination."
Of course, coming forward—even to a department meant to help and protect you— can feel intimidating. "Most employers have policies whereby they encourage employees to complain about alleged discrimination and assure the employees there will be no retaliation for such complaints," says employment attorney Sara Austin. "In reality, there is sometimes retaliation—not encouraged by the employer, but undertaken by coworkers or management." And that's not your only risk in speaking up.
"Corporations don't like it when people complain about racism," says Odell. "They sometimes fire the complainer rather than deal with the bad guy." And that's scary.
But there is significant risk associated with not speaking up as well. "Going to work in a place you feel targeted because of your race limits you from reaching your potential—you never show your employer or yourself what you're capable of professionally," says Wood. "Inaction can lead to self-doubt and feeling powerless. And all of these feelings can follow you home and impact your life and relationships outside of work."
If you decide to speak up, your initial outreach isn't the time to threaten a lawsuit. "When you complain, say that you feel mistreated because of your race, provide your evidence, and then ask HR what to do" Odell says. "Even though HR is there to protect the company, they are far less likely to recommend termination if you are professional and helping the company by identifying a problem in a non-threatening way."
The decision of what to do, if anything, is a deeply personal one and it's certainly not an easy decision to make. So we'll leave you with one last thought: "Unfortunately, even at this point in time, discrimination is more common in the workplace than one might imagine, and definitely more common than ought to occur," Austin says. "By taking no action to stop the discrimination—but protecting their job—employees may help themselves, but they will do no favor to others and the continuation of discrimination in that workplace. It is not an easy conundrum the victims face."