Does Your Company Discriminate?

Yes, some companies do mistreat employees. Here's what you need to know to protect yourself or, if necessary, take action.

whites are afraid of giving blacks feedback,” mostly for fear of being labeled racist, says Livers, even if the information is performance-related. “But if you don’t get feedback, how can you improve your performance and work on your development? You have to figure out what is really happening.”

If discrimination is taking place, it’s important to take action. The fallout from being overlooked or held back can be devastating to a black professional, says Livers and Keith A. Caver, co-authors of the book Leading in Black and White: Working Across the Racial Divide in Corporate America (Jossey-Bass; $27.95). Caver has interviewed managers who felt diminished or exhausted, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy (see “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” this issue). “They spend so much time around this whole notion of trust and being hurt,” he says. Many of them were also concerned with “keeping their guard up” or being labeled a troublemaker. “Everything is an issue,” he adds.

How to Fight Discrimination in the Workplace
Of course, there is evidence that even hard-working, dedicated employees suffer from discriminatio
n in some work environments and have to take legal action. A class-action suit is brought when several current or former employees can prove discrimination has taken place. Few of these cases actually make it to trial. The biggest hurdle for many is receiving class certification, where a judge determines the grounds for a suit based on definitive discrimination practices.

“With any employee, whether it’s a small or large company, the question is whether white employees are given preferable treatment in similar situations,” says Bob Stroup, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. “It is also important to see if there’s a pattern, if it’s happened several times or with several black employees.” If so, it is important to know your rights and how to take action against unfair work practices.

Keep records. Positive performance evaluations, letters of commendation, and e-mails of a job well done can help support your claims, should you take legal action.

File a complaint with a federal body. Call the EEOC, but there are also state and city organizations, says Stroup. “These organizations were created for companies to engage in an informal resolution of dispute.” It may not be necessary to take further legal action, but often complaints have to be filed within a certain time period. If mediation proves unfruitful, a record of your filing will help to strengthen your case.

Complain internally. Through human resources, many companies have internal mechanisms to resolve problems. “Filing a complaint within your company, however, does not protect you under the law, particularly if your charges become the basis for a class-action suit and are brought before the court,” explains Stroup. The statute of limitations could also easily run out while you’re waiting for your company to settle this dispute — if it settles it at all.

Talk to a lawyer. A civil rights lawyer will help you better understand your rights and your options under the law. There are cases where

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