How to … deal with discrimination

by 30 Oct 2007

Why is it important?

Discrimination comes in many guises, but whatever form it takes can seriously damage your career prospects, and have a negative effect on your self–confidence and how you feel about work.

Inevitably, anything that hinders career advancement will also have a knock-on effect on your pay and conditions. If you’re unfairly overlooked for promotion at a key stage in your career, it may be hard to make up the ground later on, even if you move companies.

Thankfully, in this more enlightened age, incidences of certain types of discrimination are far less common than they were.

Nonetheless, it does still exist, and if you find yourself on the receiving end of discriminatory behaviour, as an HR professional there is no excuse for not confronting it head-on.

Where do I start?

You must ascertain that you have been the victim of biased behaviour, and that you are not just being oversensitive or using it as an excuse for your own shortcomings.

Take a step back and try to look at the situation objectively. Discreetly ask a colleague to give their opinion of the situation. In many cases, your gut feeling may be enough to tell you.

Anne Payne, director of Validium, which provides employee assistance programs and confidential coaching to help employees overcome discrimination, says that “as soon as anyone does or says anything that undermines your dignity, causes offence, makes you feel threatened or intimidated”, you need to tackle the situation.

Draw the line

Before confronting the individual, think carefully about what you are going to say. It is essential to stay calm and rational and remain in control of the situation, as you need to convey how their actions have made you feel, and explain that you want such conduct to stop.

If you are not comfortable tackling the individual head-on, or indeed if such an approach proves ineffective, make sure you keep a diary of any incidents that illustrate discriminatory actions. As well as facts, record how such events made you feel.

Unlawful discrimination

As an HR professional, you know only too well that for certain types of discrimination, there are official procedures. If the discrimination is unlawful, inform your superior so the proper channels can be followed.

If your manager is the perpetrator of the unlawful behaviour, go to a more senior manager. Your employer has a legal obligation to address the issue, but as an HR professional, you should also be aware that this requires cooperation on your part, explains Payne.

“This also means you are obliged to exhaust every possible method your employer has in place to support you before any legal action can be taken,” she says.

Accept help

Working in HR means there can be a tendency to think you should be able to cope with the situation on your own, but this can compound the problem.

You needn’t feel isolated. The same free advice and services that are open to all employees are open to you. So be sure to take advantage of confidential help lines or any counselling that is available.

Don’t regard seeking help as a sign of weakness. Your career is as important as anyone else’s, and you are entitled to the same benefits as everyone else.

Next time

Hopefully, once the situation has been brought into the open and dealt with, that will be the end of it, but discrimination can sometimes resurface in a different way. If so, treat the situation the same way the second time around, and don’t be tempted to shy away for fear of what others may think.

“As soon as you recognise it, take action and restart your diary of how each incident makes you feel,” says Payne. “If you’ve already involved your line manager, go back to them and explain it’s started again and you want it to stop,” she adds.

For more information

The Equal Opportunities Handbook: How to Deal with Everyday Issues of Unfairness, by Phil Clements and Tony Spinks, Kogan Page, 2006, ISBN 0749444827

Employment Law, by Malcolm Sargeant and David Lewis, Pearson Education, 2006, ISBN 1405807431

Second opinion on dealing with discrimination

By Anne Payne, director, Validium

Have you experienced discrimination personally, and how did you deal with it?

Earlier in my career I was appraised as being ready for promotion, then consistently overlooked. The rules were constantly changed in favour of male colleagues, requiring me to confront the person responsible, explain how this made me feel, and request the exact criteria required to make promotion. It was an incredibly uncomfortable conversation that I don't regret for one second, as it enabled me to take control of the situation and break through the glass ceiling that had been imposed.

What are the do's and don'ts of dealing with discrimination?

Don't stay quiet, call in sick or avoid the problem. This will only create more obstacles for you to climb back over. If your organisation doesn't offer counselling or other services, find someone outside the organisation to give you emotional support, rather than involving your colleagues, as this can make your working environment too pressurised.

What's the worst thing an individual can do?

Not take action quickly. Any kind of discrimination or bullying can rapidly diminish your self-esteem and ability to seek help. You must take control of the situation before it takes control of you.

What are your top tips?

Don't hide from the problem. Take appropriate action without delay.

By Scott Beagrie. Courtesy of Personnel Today magazine. www.personneltoday.com

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