The Struggles of Existing While Black at Work: Addressing Race-Based Discrimination

Following recent events and movements like the officer-involved deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Black Lives Matter, many companies across the nation have started noticing racial inequities Black people have faced within organizations. Calls for greater diversity and inclusion in the workplace, long made by the Black community, are beginning to get the attention they deserve; however, true equity demands more to be done.

The push for more diverse and inclusive working environments has also brought to the fore issues of discrimination based upon a person's skin color. While concerns regarding equality in the workplace have never left the conversations of people of color, renewed and greater focus on them can give those subject to such appalling treatment the courage they need to speak out and address the injustices they, their co-workers, and others across the country have endured for years.

By holding wrongdoers accountable through legal action, victims of race-based discrimination can seek remedy and move toward creating greater fairness in the workplace, preventing future mistreatment.

Discriminating Against an Employee Because of the Color of Their Skin

Race-based discrimination occurs when an employee or applicant is treated differently because of the color of their skin, personal characteristics, or actual or perceived race. Anyone can perpetrate it, including supervisors, co-workers, clients, customers, and vendors.

Actions made against a person of color are considered discriminatory when they result in adverse employment decisions or make it difficult for the person to get their job done.

Skin color discrimination takes many forms, including, but not limited to:

  • Not hiring an otherwise qualified Black applicant
  • Terminating a Black employee for reasons other than their job performance
  • Paying a Black person less
  • Giving different job assignments based on skin color
  • Denying Black workers fringe benefits
  • Not promoting someone based on the color of their skin
  • Not providing training opportunities to Black employees
  • Giving less support to Black workers

Race-based discrimination can also include racial slurs or physical threats. However, it often appears in more subtle ways, such as having policies unrelated to business operations that, while applying to all workers, disproportionately affect employees of color.

Discrimination based on skin color is unacceptable and illegal. Local, state, and federal laws prohibit such practices.

Yet, race-based discrimination persists. It permeates organizations and affects Black people's professional and personal life.

The Professional and Personal Impacts of Existing While Black at Work

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other laws, such as the New York City Human Rights Law, protect the rights of Black workers. They were enacted to prevent people of color, and those of other protected classes, from being unfavorably treated within the workplace and give them a vehicle for addressing injustices.

Despite these protections, however, as Black employees, we often cannot just be Black at work. We are constantly reminded of our skin color. We must be extra careful when voicing our opinions, recommending changes, or suggesting new and innovative processes. We must push through extra barriers just to make our voices heard at work while being conscious to not come across as angry. Doing this is neither comfortable nor easy, and frankly, it should not be the norm.

For example, a Black person may have been at the top of their college class, received advanced degrees, and worked extremely hard to get a good job. Nevertheless, when in the workplace, there is constant scrutiny of our qualifications and fit for the position because colleagues presume we were hired only because the company needed to meet a "skin color" quota.

We are also under greater scrutiny – particularly concerning any mistakes we may make – when compared to our White counterparts. Unfortunately, to "prove" ourselves at work, Black people must often hide a fundamental part of who we are. We assimilate to the predominant (typically White) culture to downplay racial differences and connect with our White colleagues.

Still, shifting appearances and behaviors at work does not guarantee that Black employees will receive fair treatment. While we can change how we act, we cannot change the color of our skin. Discrimination persists, as colleagues and higher-ups make assumptions about us based on harmful and flat-out incorrect racial stereotypes.

When we are passed up for a promotion, greater responsibility, or other work-related opportunities, we are left to wonder whether the slight was based on our appearance and long-held beliefs about our people. We wonder whether we weren't the "right fit" because of an implicit bias, where the hiring authority didn't choose us because we didn't have the same cultural connection with them as a White employee with similar qualifications.

The experience of a Black worker being treated differently because of race and having to "hide" who we are in the workplace can adversely affect overall well-being. Our self-confidence drops, and we lose our authenticity. Additionally, we feel more isolated at work because we recognize that we do not fully belong to one group or another. Oftentimes, our white colleagues are aware of this and will exploit it for their benefit and accession.

Existing while Black at work is also bad from a fiscal perspective. Indeed, regardless of how hard we worked to get where we are, our skin color may be more visible than our qualifications, skills, or accomplishments, ultimately leaving us struggling to advance in our careers. Additionally, being burdened with worries about how colleagues perceive us because of our skin color makes it hard to effectively perform our jobs, giving employers reason to demote or terminate us, or, just simply causing burnout, forcing star performers to leave the company.

Today's Workplaces Need More Diversity and Inclusion

Because the need for diversity and inclusion has long been glossed over or completely ignored in the workplace, when Black employees look around us, we often do not see many like individuals. Sitting in meetings or even having lunch with co-workers, we notice that we are the only person of color.

The lack of Black workers is especially disheartening when we look up the corporate ladder and do not see persons of color in higher positions, which can also be intimidating. Although senior managers and executives might have open-door policies, Black employees can find it daunting to approach our leaders to seek insights and guidance. And in some cases, those open-door policies don't apply equally to Blacks. We feel it when we pass through the threshold and are met by an apathetic boss who, while affable with other employees, is aloof while interacting with us.

To begin balancing the racial disparities in the workplace, companies must aggressively focus on their diversity and inclusion efforts. They must cast a wide net during recruitment to identify talented and varied individuals who can bring new perspectives to the company. Organizations must recognize the skills of their employees of color and the experiences these workers offer that can lead to greater innovation and growth.

However, efforts should not stop there. Companies should take proactive approaches in welcoming cultural differences and understanding the value all employees bring. Not only can such actions prevent lawsuits based on discrimination, they can also improve the financial bottom lines of companies.

Change Happens When We Speak Out

While organizations have a part to play in addressing race-based inequities in the workplace, so too do the people experiencing it.

Many people are aware of the saying that “black employees have to work twice as hard as their colleagues to be given an equal shot,” it does not make the concept okay, nor is it fun for the Black people working twice as hard to be told that they only advanced in their career not because of their skills, but because of a quota.

As far as we are concerned at Hamilton Clarke, LLP, that way of thinking and living is over.

Thus, if you have been discriminated against because of your skin color, now is the time to act.

Record instances of unfavorable treatment and report them to the human resources department. Consult Hamilton Clarke, LLP if your organization does not provide a timely and acceptable remedy. We can help you file a claim with the appropriate government agency and take legal action against your employer. Unfortunately, people of color might choose not to speak out against discrimination in the workplace because of the fear of losing a job, the fear of negative publicity, or the fear of feeling like no one will ever believe or understand your experience.

But at Hamilton Clarke, LLP, we more than understand your experience. We’ve lived it.

We understand that in order to affect change, we must spotlight and address unfavorable situations and hold corporations accountable for their discriminatory actions.

Accordingly, we stand ready to stand with you and ensure that your voice is heard. We will handle your case with the sensitivity and care it deserves, and will always seek justice on your behalf.

To schedule a consultation with a member of our New York team, please call us at (646) 603-0522 or contact us online today.

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