Egregious or high-profile cases of workplace discrimination and harassment make headlines. Sometimes these cases end up in court. Other times, accusers and accused settle behind the scenes.
Federal law prohibits workplace discrimination based on gender, race, age and other factors. States also have their own individual laws regarding employment discrimination.
Blatant discrimination is easy to identify. Harder to deal with are the cases of subtle employment discrimination.
Ellen Pao, a former partner at a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, accused her employer of gender discrimination. She said Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers denied her promotions and eventually fired her after she reported bias.
Pao sued her former employer and lost her case. Her suit claimed a pattern of discrimination, including:
- She was asked to take meeting notes in her predominantly male workplace.
- She was perceived as either too harsh or too passive.
- She was passed over for opportunities when she was pregnant.
Some observers cite the incidents described by Pao as examples of subtle gender discrimination. Pao’s employer has said they support and promote women and that Pao was fired for reasons other than gender. The jury in the trial rejected Pao’s claims.
Gender discrimination, whether it’s blatant or subtle, is illegal. Indirect discrimination is hard to prove, though that shouldn’t stop workers from getting legal advice if they believe they’re a victim of bias. There are alternatives to proving a case in court and an employment attorney can advise you of your options.
Some people contend that subtle forms of bias are pervasive, eroding workplace morale, damaging companies’ reputations and leading to high employee turnover.
A Harvard Business Review analysis concluded that subtle discrimination was as damaging to morale as overt discrimination. The authors cited the self-doubt and uncertainty that plagues workers who endure a workplace with an undercurrent of bias.
In a subtly discriminatory environment, employees won’t know if they are passed over for promotions because they lack qualifications or because of race, gender or other factors unrelated to skills.
Subtle discrimination can take different form forms. For example, a manager might ignore the accomplishments of an employee based on gender. Bias can be laid bare in a backhanded praise, such as complimenting an older employee on keeping up with younger workers. Such prejudice can be unintentional, revealing unconscious beliefs about gender and race.
Although Ellen Pao lost her case, some people were encouraged that problems of subtle employment discrimination were brought to light.
While the case highlights the difficulties of proving that such behaviors constitute discrimination, employers should take heed. An atmosphere that tolerates discrimination increases the risk of lawsuits and reputation damage.