If you suspect discrimination at work, you might find yourself in one of two situations. In the first, the discrimination is obvious. If, for example, your supervisor has said that he or she will never promote members of a certain race, has used racial slurs, or otherwise has demonstrated bias against a particular racial or ethnic group, you don't need to wonder whether race is playing a role in the supervisor's decisions.
In the second scenario, you suspect discrimination, but the evidence isn't as obvious. Perhaps your company has never promoted a member of a certain race. Or maybe employees who are people of color are routinely disciplined for offenses that white employees seem to get away with. In these cases there could be an explanation that does not involve race or national origin. But it's difficult for an employee to find out the truth.
If you find yourself in either of these situations, here are a few steps you can take:
- Take notes. Start writing down every incident or statement that is offensive or just seems fishy. For example, you might make a log of every inappropriate comment your supervisor makes or print out any email messages or items posted on company bulletin boards that contain racial epithets. Keep track of key employment decisions that you suspect could be based on race, such as how many members of a particular race have been promoted to a particular position. Make sure to date your entries and keep your notes at home or in another safe place.
- Talk to other employees. If you have been discriminated against or harassed because of your race or national origin, chances are that you are not alone. Talk to your coworkers to find out whether they have faced similar problems or have seen or heard of any discriminatory behavior towards other employees.
- Take it to management. Make a complaint to someone within the company. If your company has a complaint policy, use it. Or go to the human resources department. If neither of these options is available, simply go to a high-level management official who doesn't seem to be directly involved in the problem. Or, if you have some concerns but you aren't sure whether discrimination is at the root of the problem, raise your concerns and ask the company to investigate the issue.
- Contact a government agency. If your company doesn't take any meaningful action on your complaint, you can file a charge of discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and/or your state's fair employment practices agency. The government agency will generally ask the employer to answer your charge and may even conduct an investigation itself. The agency can ask the employer to hand over documents and explain why certain employment decisions were made (information the company is unlikely to give you without being forced to do so).
- File a lawsuit. If all else fails, you can bring a lawsuit charging the company with discrimination. To file a lawsuit, you must first have filed a charge with the EEOC or a state agency.
For more information about race or national origin discrimination or to file a complaint, contact your local field office of the EEOC (contact information is available at www.eeoc.gov) or your state's fair employment practices agency. There are time limits for filing a complaint or a lawsuit, so be sure not to miss them. For a complete guide to the laws that protect you at work, read Your Rights in the Workplace, by Barbara Repa (Nolo), which covers everything from hiring and getting paid through privacy and firing.
If you've decided to file an agency charge or discrimination lawsuit, or you simply want advice on what to do next, consider a consultation with an experienced employment lawyer. (You can find lawyers in your area using Nolo's Lawyer Directory.)