It was an accident: Overcoming unintentional discrimination in the workplace

By Anita Ginsburg

It’s always in the best interest of a company to ensure that discriminatory actions aren’t happening at the workplace. It’s harder, though, to account for those actions that honestly seem accidental. Below are a few steps you can take to deal with unintentional discrimination in the workplace.

Address the issue

Unintentional discrimination can be difficult to pinpoint, because unlike intentional discrimination, it isn’t a purposeful attack on another person. It may be something as quietly insidious as paying someone less because of their gender or making a poorly thought out joke. However, just because these instances aren’t deliberate doesn’t mean they don’t need to be addressed.

Don’t just sweep these problems under the rug. You need to address them head-on. Talk to the employees involved and make it clear that while the incident might not have been purposeful, it is still inappropriate and unacceptable. You need to ensure that the proper protocols are followed and that no employee walks away thinking that any form of discrimination will be covered up.

Look for institutional problems

Now that you’ve addressed the direct issue, you can start looking at why it occurred. Take a moment to look at your business and to see if it is set up in a way that encourages these actions. There might be problems that you haven’t been able to see before that are now obvious, and you have a perfect chance to fix them. Use this incident as an opportunity to reassess how well your business deals with similar issues.

Perhaps you work in an older building that was never outfitted to be wheelchair friendly. This problem might not have been one you thought about before and you might not have purposely avoided updating the building, but it is still a problem that needs to be fixed.

Talk to a lawyer

Make sure you talk to a lawyer about what has occurred to see what kind of liability that might now be an issue. Whether you are dealing with racial discrimination law, gender discrimination law, or some other kind of discrimination, you need to know what you’re looking at. Consider this a chance to brush up on the law and to ensure that your company is protected. They might be able to help you find additional holes in your company’s structure or regulations that should be clarified to prevent future incidents.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Above all else, make sure that you have a system in place that allows employees who are the victims of this type of discrimination to report their experiences. Ensure that you don’t try to put the burden of dealing with discrimination on these employees, especially if doing so makes them feel like reporting the incident could impact their livelihood. The last thing you want to do is to put someone on the defensive who has already had to deal with a discriminatory act.

It’s tempting to look at accidental discrimination as a learning opportunity, but it is more than that. If you notice that it has occurred, you need to stop and look at how and why it happened. Only by addressing the root causes can you actually solve the problems in your business.


Anita Ginsburg is a freelance writer from Denver, CO. She studied at Colorado State University, and now writes articles about health, business, family and finance. A mother of two, she enjoys traveling with her family whenever she isn’t writing. You can follow her on Twitter @anitaginsburg.

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