Workplace Discrimination: Uncovering Its Roots and How to Address It


Are you aware of the discrimination that may be happening around you in the workplace? Discrimination exists in various forms, and it can have devastating effects on the overall well-being of employees. It is essential to uncover the roots of workplace discrimination and understand how to address it effectively. This article will shed light on the common types of workplace discrimination, the impact it has on employees, and what companies and individuals can do to combat it.

But first, let's start by understanding what workplace discrimination really is and how it manifests itself in the professional environment. Discrimination can take many forms, from unequal pay and opportunities to unfair treatment based on gender, race, age, or disability. It can also occur through harassment, bullying, or exclusion from important projects or meetings. According to a study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, "discrimination in the workplace can lead to low morale and productivity, high turnover rates, and a lack of trust in leadership" 1 . This can create a toxic work environment for everyone involved.

In this article, you will learn about the common roots of workplace discrimination, the different types that workers may face, and the steps to take when encountering discrimination at work. By understanding these key points, you will be better equipped to address and prevent discrimination in your own workplace, whether as an employee or employer.

Now, let's delve deeper into the roots of workplace discrimination and its impact on employees.

Understanding Workplace Discrimination

Discrimination in the workplace refers to the unfair or unequal treatment of an individual or group based on certain characteristics, such as race, gender, age, disability, religion, or sexual orientation. It can take many forms, including harassment, unequal pay, denial of opportunities, or wrongful termination.

According to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives" . Workplace discrimination can have a profound impact on your mental and emotional well-being, leading to feelings of isolation, stress, and low self-esteem. It can also hinder your professional growth and negatively affect your productivity and performance at work.

In order to truly understand workplace discrimination, it's important to recognize that it is not just about individual actions, but often rooted in larger societal issues such as systemic racism, misogyny, or ableism. These deep-seated prejudices and biases can infiltrate the workplace, leading to unequal treatment and opportunities for certain groups of people.

It's essential for both employers and employees to acknowledge the impact and prevalence of workplace discrimination. As Dr. Maya Angelou once said, "Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible" 2 . By recognizing and understanding the roots of discrimination, we can take proactive steps to address and eliminate it in our workplaces.

Where Discrimination Starts: Common Roots

Workplace discrimination often has its roots in deep-seated biases and societal norms that have been ingrained in individuals over time. These biases can be influenced by various factors such as culture, upbringing, and personal beliefs.

One common root of discrimination is unconscious bias. According to renowned researcher and scholar Mahzarin Banaji, "Most of our biases are hidden from us, and hidden from others." Unconscious bias refers to the attitudes and stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases can lead to discriminatory behavior towards certain groups of people without individuals even realizing it.

Another common root of discrimination is the perpetuation of stereotypes. Psychologist Claude Steele notes, "Stereotypes are one way by which history affects present life. By means of stereotypes, we reduce, neutralize, and justify the inequalities that are so deeply ingrained in our society." Stereotypes can lead to assumptions and prejudices about certain groups which then manifest as discrimination in the workplace.

Moreover, discrimination can also stem from a lack of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. When a company's leadership and workforce are not diverse, it may lead to a homogenous, exclusive, and discriminatory work environment. As organizational psychologist Tanya Hernandez explains, "When there is a lack of diversity in a company, it can perpetuate stereotypes and discrimination, making it difficult for marginalized groups to thrive."

Understanding these common roots is essential in addressing and combating workplace discrimination. By acknowledging the influences and biases that contribute to discriminatory behavior, individuals and organizations can begin to take steps towards creating a more inclusive and equitable work environment.

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Types of Discrimination Faced by Workers

Discrimination can manifest in various forms in the workplace, and it's crucial to recognize and understand these types:

  1. Racial Discrimination: This occurs when someone is treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity. It can range from subtle biases to outright acts of racism.

  2. Gender Discrimination: This is the unfair treatment of an individual based on their gender. It can involve anything from pay disparities to being overlooked for promotions.

  3. Age Discrimination: This is when someone is treated differently because of their age. It often affects older employees who may face stereotypes or be passed over for opportunities.

  4. Sexual Orientation Discrimination: This happens when individuals are mistreated or excluded due to their sexual orientation. It can create a hostile work environment and affect mental well-being.

  5. Disability Discrimination: Individuals with disabilities may face discrimination in the form of inaccessible workplaces, lack of accommodations, or unfair treatment due to their condition.

  6. Religious Discrimination: This occurs when someone is treated unfairly because of their religious beliefs. It can include being denied time off for religious holidays or facing harassment.

As Dara Khosrowshahi, the CEO of Uber, once said, "Discrimination has a lot of layers that make it tough for minorities to get a leg up." It's essential to recognize these different layers of discrimination and work towards creating a fair and inclusive workplace.

The Impact of Discrimination on Employees

When you face discrimination at work, it can have a deep and lasting impact on you. It affects your mental and emotional well-being, as well as your job performance and career prospects. Discrimination can make you feel undervalued, powerless, and even question your worth as a professional.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." This powerful statement resonates with the profound impact of discrimination on employees. It creates a toxic work environment that undermines teamwork, productivity, and overall company culture.

Discrimination can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and even depression. It may cause you to feel isolated and unsupported, affecting your ability to collaborate with colleagues and perform your best at work. These emotional and psychological burdens can spill over into your personal life, disrupting your relationships and overall sense of well-being.

Moreover, the impact of discrimination goes beyond individual employees. It can tarnish the reputation of the company and erode trust among its workforce. It creates a culture of fear and inequality, hindering the organization's ability to attract and retain top talent. As a result, the company's bottom line may suffer, as productivity and innovation wane in a discriminatory environment.

In his book "Leading with Dignity," author Donna Hicks writes, "When people feel marginalized, they are more likely to either shut down or become aggressive in an attempt to regain control over their sense of self-worth." This quote illustrates the profound impact of discrimination on employees' ability to thrive in the workplace.

In conclusion, the impact of discrimination on employees is profound and far-reaching. It affects not only the individual's well-being but also the overall dynamics and success of the company. It is crucial for both employers and employees to address workplace discrimination proactively and create a culture of inclusivity and respect.

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How Companies Can Fight Workplace Discrimination

It is crucial for companies to take proactive measures to fight workplace discrimination and create a fair and inclusive environment for all employees. Here are some effective strategies to address and combat discrimination in the workplace:

  1. Establish Clear Anti-Discrimination Policies: You can't tackle discrimination if you don't have strong policies in place. Clearly outline what constitutes discrimination and harassment, and communicate these policies to all employees. As diversity and inclusion consultant Verna Myers said, "Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.".

  2. Provide Regular Training: Conduct regular training sessions for employees and managers to educate them about discrimination, unconscious bias, and inclusive behavior. This will help raise awareness and foster a more inclusive workplace culture.

  3. Promote Diversity in Hiring and Promotion: Actively seek diverse candidates for job openings and promotions. "Diversity is the mix, and inclusion is making the mix work," noted Andrés Tapia, a diversity and inclusion strategist.

  4. Create Supportive Networks: Encourage the formation of employee resource groups or affinity groups where employees from underrepresented groups can connect, share experiences, and seek support.

  5. Implement a Reporting System: Establish a confidential and secure reporting system for employees to report instances of discrimination or harassment. Take all reports seriously and conduct thorough investigations.

  6. Hold Perpetrators Accountable: Enforce consequences for discriminatory behavior. As Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's COO, stated, "We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change" .

By implementing these strategies, companies can create a more inclusive and respectful workplace where employees feel valued and respected, regardless of their background.

Laws and Rights Against Discrimination

It is crucial to understand your rights and protections against workplace discrimination. The law provides clear guidelines to ensure that no employee is treated unfairly based on race, sex, age, disability, or other protected characteristics.

According to legal experts, "The law is on your side when it comes to protecting you from workplace discrimination. It's important to know and assert your rights."

One of the most significant laws safeguarding against discrimination is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Another essential law is the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination based on age.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is yet another crucial piece of legislation that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including employment.

"If you feel you are being discriminated against at work, familiarize yourself with these laws and know that you have the right to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state's fair employment agency," suggests human resources experts.

Understanding these laws and your rights is vital in protecting yourself from workplace discrimination. If you believe you are being discriminated against, do not hesitate to seek legal counsel and stand up for your rights.

Steps to Take When Facing Discrimination at Work

If you find yourself facing discrimination in the workplace, it's essential to take the right steps to address the issue. Here are some practical steps you can take to protect yourself and fight against workplace discrimination:

  1. Document Everything: Keep a detailed record of any discriminatory incidents you experience or witness. Note down dates, times, and details of what happened. This documentation will be valuable if you need to report the discrimination to HR or take legal action.

  2. Report to HR or Management: If you feel comfortable doing so, report the discrimination to your company's HR department or management. Express your concerns and provide the evidence you've collected. In many cases, companies have policies in place to address workplace discrimination.

  3. Seek Legal Advice: If the discrimination continues or your company does not take appropriate action, it may be time to seek legal advice. Speaking to an employment lawyer can help you understand your rights and options for addressing the situation.

  4. Utilize Support Networks: Reach out to colleagues, trade unions, or external support groups that may offer assistance and guidance. Speaking out and seeking support can empower you and help you navigate through a challenging time.

  5. Take Care of Yourself: Dealing with workplace discrimination can be emotionally draining. Make sure to take care of yourself, both mentally and physically. Seek support from friends, family, or professionals if you're struggling to cope.

Remember, addressing workplace discrimination is crucial for creating a fair and inclusive work environment for everyone. By taking these steps, you can protect yourself and help bring about positive change in your workplace.


As you've learned throughout this article, workplace discrimination is a complex and pervasive issue that can have serious repercussions for employees. It can lead to feelings of isolation, low morale, and even physical and mental health problems. Addressing workplace discrimination is not just a matter of policy and legal compliance, but of creating a culture of inclusivity and respect within the organization.

Remember, you have the power to stand up against discrimination and make a difference in your workplace. Whether you're in a position of authority or an entry-level employee, your actions and attitudes can contribute to creating a more welcoming and equitable environment for everyone.

By understanding the roots and types of discrimination, its impact on employees, and the laws and rights available, you can actively work towards creating a discrimination-free workplace. It is important to listen to those affected by discrimination and work collectively towards change.

As Maya Angelou once said, "We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter their color." It is up to each of us to weave a tapestry of respect and equality in our workplaces.

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1Susan J. Lambert, "Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Workplace: Issues and Challenges for Today's Organizations" (2017)
2Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Toward Freedom (1958)
3Maya Angelou, Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1994)
4Mahzarin Banaji, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (2013)
5Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (2010)
6Tanya K. Hernandez, Multiracials and Civil Rights: Mixed-Race Stories of Discrimination (2008)
7Dara Khosrowshahi, "The Disrupters: Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi on Expanding the Ride," Bloomberg (2018)
8Donna Hicks, Leading with Dignity (2020)
9Verna Myers, "Diversity and inclusion: 8 best practices for changing your culture," in Forbes, 2017.
10Andrés Tapia, The Inclusion Paradox: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity. ISBN-10: 1474281000
11Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (2013)
12Legal Handbook, Employment Law (2018)
13Deborah C. Malamud, Law and Ethics in Global Business: How to Integrate Law and Ethics into Corporate Governance Around the World (2018)
14Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter (2009)