Ways Employers Encourage Discrimination in the Workplace without Even Knowing It

You might have read stories about what it's allegedly like to job hunt in Silicon Valley; where 20-something applicants get Botox injections or go to other extreme lengths to hide their age because of rampant discrimination in the workplace against "the old" (that is, anyone over 32 years old).

Despite crackdowns by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), there’s still a belief that “young people are just smarter,” as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously said (when he was younger). And Silicon Valley isn’t alone. Many employers discriminate against people on the basis of age, sex, race, religion, disability, and other factors by actions they may not ever consider to be discriminatory.

For example, many companies run afoul of the law with job postings that ask for “able-bodied” employees or even jokingly say they’re “looking for a few good men.” Or some managers roll their eyes when organizing mandatory anti-discrimination trainings, which makes it seem like they don't take discrimination law seriously.

Discrimination can accidentally creep up just about anywhere. Here are some ways organizations demonstrate or encourage workplace discrimination and strategies to avoid them.

Discrimination and Hiring Decisions

Job postings have to do so much in so few words. They need to include preferred skills and experience while also impressing applicants (so as to compete with other job listings). But all this careful consideration and "word wizardry" make it easy to accidentally slip in phrases that exclude certain people. For example, saying it’s a “young, energetic company” or that the job would be “perfect for a retiree or stay-at-home mom” could be interpreted as discriminatory.

And it's not just about avoiding certain phrases altogether. How we say things needs to be considered, too. For example, it communicates something quite different to say we’re looking for a mature person versus a person who demonstrates maturity. The former positions maturity as a core characteristic, whereas the latter positions it as a skill. In other words, the former could be interpreted as age discrimination, the other not so much.

Discrimination can even slip in when writing job applications or interviewing candidates. The EEOC explicitly prohibits pre-employment questions about disability (including pregnancy) and recommends avoiding any questions around professional organizations, which could reveal an applicant's race or religion. There are also regulations on what kind of background check information employers can gather.

Tips for avoiding discrimination when hiring new employees

  • Focus on the job's typical activities. For example, a given job might require a candidate to be able to lift 50 pounds. But saying in the job description “must be able to lift 50 pounds” could be interpreted by people with disabilities, smaller people, and some women to mean “this job excludes you.”
    So rather than positioning this as a required skill, The University of Michigan suggests explaining candidates will be "routinely moving audio/visual equipment weighing up to 50 pounds…." This makes it clear that the chosen employee may be asked to perform this task, but doesn't exclude certain applicants.
  • Be mindful of any skills or requirements that may describe someone's character or physical ability. Re-read the skills listed on the job application. If any of them could be interpreted as characteristics or physical abilities — such as "a mature person," "able bodied," "young at heart," or "recent college graduates" — rephrase or delete it!
  • Read the EEOC guidelines carefully. Avoid anything that refers to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, marital status, and pregnancy. Be careful when asking questions about financial information, as it could be discriminatory if applicants are denied based on their financial and/or credit history.

Discrimination and Workplace Activities

Discrimination can happen even after an employee is hired. The EEOC outlines not only who we can't discriminate against, but also what is considered discrimination. For every single type of discrimination, it states the following:

"The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment."

Notice "fringe benefits." This is a vague term that can include anything from health insurance and 401K matching plans to morale activities and team bonding exercises. And it's also one of the areas where employers can most easily exclude certain individuals.

Let's take team building events as an example. It’s fine to have a company softball league so long as there are other activities that, say, someone with a disability would also be able to participate in. One Halo tournament is okay, as long as other activities are inclusive of people who are less likely or unable to play video games. We need to have a diverse mix of workplace activities to ensure there's something for everyone and we aren't unintentionally offering "fringe benefits" to some employees and not others.

Tips for avoiding discrimination when planning workplace activities

  • Make workplace activities accessible to all. A single team building event doesn’t have to be inclusive of every single interest. Our morale programs collectively need to be diverse enough so that everyone has access to similar opportunities and benefits.

  • That being said, all activities should be physically accessible to everyone. For example, people with disabilities should be able to actually get to the activity.
  • Avoid planning activities on key religious holidays. Employees of certain faiths might not be able to participate if you host events on holy days. You can see a full list of religious holidays here.
  • Be mindful of activities employees of certain faiths can't participate in. For example, some Hindus might choose to not eat beef. Many Judaism practitioners follow kosher standards that prohibit the cross contamination of certain food products. Your events need to accommodate all the religious lifestyles of your staff.

Discrimination and Workplace Policies

Discrimination needs to be considered beyond just event planning. It needs to also be factored into employment policies. For example, some organizations have guidelines for appropriate workplace attire and grooming habits. However, these policies can conflict with some employees’ religious practices if it prohibits, say, wearing headscarves or having long hair.

And it's not only about having policies written down. Sure, these say our organizations won't tolerate people of certain faiths, races, genders, and disabilities being victims of workplace harassment. But we need to have procedures in place so we can act on any discrimination against employees who, say, take more frequent breaks to pray or choose to marry someone of the same sex. In sum, we need to plan proactively and follow through reactively to ensure no one falls victim to a hostile work environment.

Tips for avoiding discrimination when creating workplace policies

  • Allow flex time or swapping of schedules among employees. This gives parents and those of certain faiths options for missing work because of religious or childcare obligations.
  • Develop a clear process for handling harassment. Just creating a procedure isn't enough. It also needs to be visible to everyone and constantly enforced by leadership.
  • Create workplace policies inclusive of religious, race, or sexual expression. Workplace attire and break policies need to be inclusive of all sorts of expressions, such as the wearing of religious attire, clothes associated with the gender employees identify with, and symbols of national origin.

So, How Do We Avoid Unintentional Discrimination in the Workplace?

Workplace discrimination can creep up just about anywhere; and it won't necessarily be blatant. Sure, it's our job as leaders and policy makers to make sure we're following federal and state discrimination laws. But it's about more than just legalities. It's also about creating a workplace environment that is inclusive of all types of employees.

Respect for all people has to be a daily conversation within our organizations. By developing diversity education programs and holding managers accountable for enforcing discrimination-free policies, we'll be able to create more tolerant workplaces and increase the productivity and happiness among our staff.

This Information Is Not Legal Advice


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