Defeating Discrimination in the Workplace

Arlene Phang* remembers well the obstacles her Asian-American father had to battle at work. He would come home for dinner, his back hunched in defeat, and tell Arlene’s mother about the trials of the day: a racial slur here, an offensive joke there, another promotion for which he had been overlooked. To Arlene, her father’s encounters with racial discrimination in the workplace were not only cruel and unjust, but also debilitating. With every day in the office, he would return home less vibrant and more disillusioned. Perhaps the only thing that kept him going was his unwavering belief that things would get better -- that his daughters would not have to suffer the rigors that he did.

And while the U.S. has made huge strides in achieving equal opportunity in employment – and things have gotten better – racial discrimination persists. Many argue that it has simply taken subtler forms. Fortunately, while the racial prejudice endures, the tactics to defeat it are more accessible than ever before. The following are simple, yet effective strategies for combating racial prejudice in the workplace – and coming out on top.

1. Ask for a Helping Hand

Mark Newton, a Microsoft Certified System Engineer who is of African-American descent, had applied for dozens of computer jobs. He was well-qualified and experienced, with impeccable credentials and references. Nevertheless, Mark had no way to impress employers with his computer prowess: no one was calling him for interviews. Yet the computer job market was greedy for new employees. Mark couldn’t understand what was going wrong.

What Mark didn’t know was that something he hadn’t even considered was jeopardizing his job search. While Mark had great technological aptitude, his writing skills were poor. “It wasn’t until I showed my resume and cover letter to a friend of mine that I understood the problem. I had spelling and grammar errors everywhere! Also, I didn’t know that resumes should follow a specific format. The appearance of mine was totally unprofessional.”

Fortunately, with the assistance of his friend and a how-to book, Mark revised his resume. He reapplied for jobs and received several calls for interviews only two weeks later. Mark explains what he learned from the experience: “Discrimination can definitely be a problem in the job-seeking process. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t assume it is. Make sure your application materials are in perfect shape, even if that means enlisting the help of knowledgeable friends and colleagues.”

2. Use All Your Resources

While racism and unfair hiring practices often target people of color, minority status doesn’t have to be a disadvantage. Certain employment agencies, job banks, and recruitment services focus specifically on minorities, especially in select fields. If you are having trouble finding a job through typical routes like newspaper ads and general job sites, check out more identity-specific job banks such as MINORITIES’ JOB BANK. You can also visit minority professional networking organizations such as The National Society of Hispanic MBAs, the National Society of Black Engineers, the National Association of Asian-American Professionals, and The Native American Journalists Association, to name a few.

3. Present Your Background as an Asset

“You don’t need to bring up your race several times in the same interview. However, you can address the issue. For example, ask how many Hispanic Americans are in the company and how many are at the executive level,” suggests John Gabarro, a Professor at the Harvard Business School and co-author of Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America. Employees today are not only making racial identity part of the workplace discourse: they are declaring it an asset.

With the United States’ demographics becoming increasingly heterogeneous (current estimates hold that minorities will represent more than half the workforce by 2020), diversity is not only a moral imperative, but a smart business move. For example, minority clients often feel more comfortable when they are dealing with employees who resemble them and other members of their community. A bilingual employee has the advantage of being able to communicate with a broader range of people. And a person of mixed racial background is often more at ease with different kinds of people, inspiring trust and, sometimes, a larger customer base.

4. (Over) Achieve

Perhaps the best defense against discrimination is prevention. The person who performs beyond expectations, arrives early to work and stays late, maintains an upbeat and professional attitude, and serves as an invaluable part of the team is hard to criticize - no matter what his or her racial background. Time and again, you will hear the most successful minority executives say that they “worked twice as hard as anyone else.” Their performance - not their identity - brought them the greatest success.

5. Reach Out

According to Janet Tiebout Hanson, founder of multi-billion dollar Milestone Capital Management, men in corporate America have honed networking into a science. But minorities and women lag far behind in networking for corporate development. Finding mentors and other workplace allies is an essential component of networking that all employees should understand.

There are a number of ways to develop mentor relationships. Join the minority organizations that your company provides. Such organizations provide a chance to discuss common concerns as well as to network. If your company doesn’t have any formally recognized minority organizations, visit the human resources office and ask to start your own. In this age of growing workplace diversity, your employer is likely to approve a multicultural initiative – especially if its goals involve professional enrichment and leadership. You can also request company-wide diversity training, a common practice at the Fortune 500 as well as at smaller companies.

Mentoring can also mean enhanced communication between professionals who share common goals. Anita Borg, renowned scientist and high tech guru, established Systers in 1987 for this very purpose. Systers is a networking tool for technical women in computing who wish to compare and contrast ideas with other professionals in their field. Now with 2500 members in 38 countries, Systers is the perfect example of how successful networking can operate within a specific niche.

6. Reach Back

“The higher you are,” Anita Borg once explained, “the more visible you are and the more vocal you can become.” In other words, people who have progressed to the executive level often have more power to challenge the status quo, and ultimately, to change unfair workplace policies and procedures.

Gregory Morgan, an African-American mechanical engineer, regrets that he had few mentors early in his professional life. Now that he is well established in his own line of work, he uses his level of success to reach back. “It’s important to me to encourage children - especially minorities - to consider engineering as a viable and rewarding career. I devote a lot of time to this end.”

Participating in your company’s hiring and promoting efforts is another way to reach back. When minority professionals go out of their way to encourage and assist junior-level minority achievers, they improve not only individual lives, but also the general state of workplace diversity.

7. Consider Moving On

While our society frowns upon “giving up,” employees cannot be faulted for leaving a place where they are victim to frequent, severe, or devitalizing discrimination. Breaking Through co-author John Gabarro discusses the importance finding a job where prejudice isn’t an obstacle: “I encourage my students to think first about what they want and what they can handle in the workplace.”

Remember why you work: Chances are it’s to make money so that you can live your life. If the quality of your life is being impaired by discrimination on the job, it’s time to explore other options. No one need play the role of sacrificial lamb simply to make a point or to assume the moral high ground. Norma Carr-Ruffino, Ph.D. explains in her book, The Promotable Woman, that all employees ultimately have three choices: “stay and cope with the discrimination,” “find a company that treats [you] better,” or “go outside the company to the EEOC to file a complaint, and perhaps later, a lawsuit.” When confronted with discrimination, most employees prefer option two: find a new company. Remember that a nurturing, supportive, and fair atmosphere can improve the quality of your career – and your life.

8. Be a Selective Voter and Consumer

There are ways to combat racial discrimination on a national level, but too few people take advantage of them. Voting for politicians who support individual rights and workplace diversity is a powerful way to combat on-the-job racism. Make sure you’re registered to vote, vote regularly, and keep abreast of candidates’ political platforms and agendas.

Being a selective consumer is another way to oppose racial discrimination. If you see an ad that presents minorities in an unfavorable light, refuse to buy that company’s products or services. Tell your friends to avoid them too. Better yet, write a letter to the company’s public relations department explaining why their advertising is prejudiced and how they can change it for the better. React with humanity and professionalism – but do react.

9. Try Mediation Services

According to a 1999 study by Catalyst Women, a nonprofit research organization, only 22% of female minority professionals say their managers receive adequate training to manage a diverse workforce. Another 50% of respondents cite pervasive stereotypes when evaluating their work environment. Signs of workplace inequality are everywhere. Minorities typically earn less income than white professionals in the same positions. While Asian-American professionals experience as much prejudice as other minorities, they are notorious for under-reporting such incidents. Hispanic-American employees are far less likely to have meaningful mentor relationships than their white peers.

To balance the scales of workplace inequality, many employees turn to the legal system. But the courtroom is often neither the most reliable, desirable, nor fastest way to resolve a dispute. Mediation can be a quicker, less expensive, and more satisfying way to fight workplace discrimination. Mediation works in the following way: The two (or more) conflicting parties hire a third person – the mediator – to serve as an objective arbitrator. The mediator’s job is to listen to both parties’ claims and to help resolve the dispute in the least combative and most accommodating way possible. While mediation requires some degree of compromise on all sides, it can be an effective means toward a peaceful resolution. Mediation is favored less by employees who have been fired and/or seek damages, and more by those wishing to mend troubled workplace relationships. Because it is structured upon diplomacy and cooperation, mediation often helps both sides establish a mutually acceptable working arrangement.

Mediation is growing in popularity, especially at more progressive workplaces. You should check with your human resources department to see if mediation services are sponsored or subsidized by your company. If they are (or even if they aren’t), you can find out more information on the process from the following organizations: National Association for Community Mediation and the American Arbitration Association.

10: Remember that the Laws Are on Your Side

Racism is an ominous force, and in its presence, many people feel helpless. During tough times, take comfort in the fact that federal employment laws do not tolerate prejudice - and that there are penalties for discrimination. By far, the most significant anti-discrimination law covering the workplace is Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under this law, workplace discrimination based on race, skin color, religious orientation, or national origin is illegal and subject to punishment. A national body called the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for administering and enforcing the legal standards set by Title VII.

According to Your Rights in the Workplace, by Attorney Barbara Kate Repa, the EEOC’s caseload burgeoned by nearly 40% from 1990 to 1998. This dramatic increase is testament to the Commission’s effectiveness and popularity. And while claims that affect a large number of employees are most likely to garner the EEOC’s attention, persons who have experienced disruptive and harmful workplace discrimination shouldn’t hesitate to file a complaint.

There are many remedies that the EEOC can provide under Title VII to employees who have suffered discrimination. These include reinstatement and promotion, recovery of wages and job-connected losses, money damages, injunctive relief (when a company is ordered to change its policies in order to stop discrimination), and payment of attorney’s fees.

(* Names and identifying information have been changed)