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Unintentional Discrimination in the Workplace

2022-06-23
Unintentional Discrimination in the Workplace

No organization wants to label itself as discriminatory. Sometimes, employment discrimination is obvious - e.g. when someone is being openly racist or misogynistic. But sometimes it is more subtle, and employers may not even be aware that they are engaging in it. In this article, we'll discuss unintentional discrimination in the workplace, and provide tips for how managers can avoid these pitfalls.

What Are the Forms of Workplace Discrimination?

Workplace discrimination can take many different forms. Some common types of employment discrimination include direct and indirect discrimination, viztimization, harassment, systematic, reverse, and intentional discrimination. In this article, we will speak about unintentional discrimination.

What Is Unintentional Discrimination in the Workplace?

Unintentional discrimination is a seemingly harmless workplace policy, company rule, or a way of behaving that has an adverse effect on members of a protected class - race, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, and so on. It often stems from unconscious biases and stereotypes about everyone who belongs to a protected group.

How Can Unintentional Discrimination Occur in the Workplace

Unintentional discriminatory practices often stem from unconscious biases. Social psychology has attempted to explain why people develop prejudice that leads to discrimination. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Stereotyping. It helps us to make sense of society by reducing the amount of cognitive effort it takes to process our environment. However, stereotyping also makes us ignore differences between people and generalize about things that are not always true. While some stereotypes can be positive (e.g., "Doctors are smart"), most stereotypes are negative (e.g., "Women are bad drivers"). Such generalizations can often overspill into our work lives and lead to unintentional discrimination.
  • Lack of diversity. The Robbers Cave experiment took place in the 1950s. 22 boys were brought to a camp in Oklahoma and divided into two groups. The groups were then given different rules and regulations. The boys were not allowed to interact with each other, and they quickly developed negative attitudes toward each other. It proved that if our environment lacks diversity, we develop biases about groups unfamiliar to us, which can make us unintentionally discriminate against others at work.
  • Social Identity Theory. It states that people's sense of who they are is based on their membership in social groups. This sense of identity leads to intergroup behaviors, such as discrimination and prejudice. The theory also suggests that people will conform to the norms and rules of their group in order to maintain their social identity. This explains why sometimes we unintentionally discriminate against others at work - we want to belong.

Examples of Unintentional Discrimination in the Workplace

In recent years, there has been an increased focus on the issue of unconscious bias in the workplace. Unconscious bias refers to the judgments and assumptions that we all make about people based on our own experiences and beliefs.

While these biases are often innocuous, they can also lead to discrimination against certain groups of people. Here are some examples of unintentional discrimination:

  • Unintentional national origin discrimination. A hiring manager hires a person of the same national origin as them. Unconsciously, he/she associates the candidate with the positive experiences in his/her home country and perceived positive traits the applicant has because of it.
  • Unintentional gender discrimination. During a job interview, a manager labels a female job applicant harsh and bossy. In most cultures, women are stereotypically seen to be gentle and submissive, so certain female applicants can be perceived as bossy, whereas male candidates who act similarly are seen as assertive.
  • Unintentional age discrimination. A recruiter doesn't recruit a job candidate because of his age - on the interview notes he writes "older" next to his application, whereas other applicants are marked as "younger." The interviewer unconsciously attributes positive traits to a younger candidate, such as having good computer skills and being mentally quick, and so he is chosen for the position.

What Is the Difference Between Intentional and Unintentional Discrimination in the Workplace?

Intentional discrimination in the workplace is when an employer or coworker deliberately treats an employee or job applicant differently because of their protected characteristics.

Unintentional discrimination, on the other hand, is when an employer has a policy or practice that appears to be neutral but has a disproportionately negative impact on a protected group of employees. It usually stems from beliefs, biases, stereotypes, and prejudice, that the person who discriminates against others may not be aware of.

How To Prevent Unintentional Discrimination at Work

Whether we realize it or not, we each have a unique set of experiences, beliefs, and values that shape our worldview. While these biases can sometimes be helpful, they can also lead to discrimination at work. Preventing unintentional discrimination is any reputable business' necessity. Here are some ways to stop it from occurring:

  • Be aware of your own personal biases. Take some time to reflect on your past experiences and you might hold certain beliefs. For example, if you grew up in a homogenous community, you might be less comfortable around people who are different from you.
  • Pay attention to the language you use. The words we choose can reveal a lot about our underlying beliefs and attitudes. For example, someone who refers to a group of people or a protected class as "lazy" or "stupid" is likely to display bias against them.
  • Seek diversity. By talking with people who have different backgrounds and perspectives, and learning about other cultures, you can begin to see the world in a new light and develop a more inclusive perspective.
  • Promote inclusion and diversity. Inclusion is about making sure that everyone feels welcome, respected, and valued. Diversity is about recognizing and celebrating the ways in which we are all different. You can promote it by ensuring a diverse mix of people in leadership positions, having an open-door policy, and offering flexible work arrangements.
  • Educate others. Provide training on unconscious bias, cultural competence, and protected classes. This can help employees to become more aware of their own biases and to learn how to interact respectfully with colleagues from different backgrounds.

How can we stop Unintentional Discrimination at Work

If you are experiencing unintentional employment discrimination at work, there are a few steps you can take:

  • Confront a person who is discriminating against you. If you are receiving disparate treatment at work, it is important to talk to other employees who are responsible for this directly. Be calm, professional, and clearly express your wish to be treated fairly.
  • Talk to your employer or human resources department. It is important for an employer to be aware of employees being treated differently based solely on protected characteristics. To prove a discrimination case, you should present evidence to support your claim.
  • File an official discrimination claim in your workplace. If you are receiving disparate treatment, find out about your business practice and policies for reporting and dealing with discriminatory cases.
  • File a complaint with EEOC (US) or contact Acas (UK). Under employment law, different protected classes have a right to contact institutions, such as Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the US, and the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service in the UK. They can provide assistance with job-related unlawful discrimination.
  • Consider legal options. Consult an employment lawyer or a law firm. Finding a reputable lawyer and establishing a good attorney-client relationship can help employees successfully fight illegal discrimination.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Unintentional Discrimination Illegal?

Anti-discrimination laws state that even if the employer or a business does not have an intention to discriminate, they can be held liable for unlawful employment discrimination.

Disparate impact or adverse impact occurs when a certain company practice, policy, or behavior has a disproportionately negative effect on a protected group, even if it is unintentional. Therefore, discrimination laws are applied to unintentional discrimination, too.

How Is Unintentional Discrimination Proven?

To prove that you have been discriminated against at work, you have to present evidence that you were treated unfairly because of a protected characteristic.

Even if it was unintentional. you would need to show that your employer behaved differently or broke standard rules because of your membership in a protected class.

Can Employers Be Held Liable for Unintentional Discrimination?

The law prohibits business practices or policies that are influenced by stereotypes, biases and generalizations that affect members of a protected class.

Even if employers do not mean to discriminate, they can still be held liable for business practice or policy that has a disparate impact.

What Act Covers Unintentional Discrimination?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in the US prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

The Equality Act 2010 in the UK provides legal protection to employees who are discriminated against by their employers.

Who Has the Burden of Proof in Unintentional Discrimination?

In employment discrimination cases, the burden of proof is on the victim - it is their responsibility to provide evidence of unintentional discrimination.