What to Do When Employers Are Discriminating Based on Race

by Salary.com Staff - Original publish date: October 1, 2012

Q: Dear Heather,

I am an African-American female who is working for a company who only seems to want to mentor and promote Caucasian people (especially Caucasian females). After putting in maximum effort for this company and even recreating their company newsletter they previously let fall to the ground, they continued to promote one white person after the other, some with high qualifications and others with only previous fast food experience.

All of us African-Americans slowly deflated and realized this company did not want anyone with my ethnic background in leadership. We watched while one African-American was terminated for something much less offensive than our white counterparts.

For a while I maintained hope especially since I was able to convince a manager to allow me back into the Supervisor Training course I was chosen for and previously postponed. After contributions to a major project for the company, I began to see more and more that I was being scored differently on my calls than my white co-workers. I first began to attempt to be perfect on every one of them to prove my worthiness. Then I realized there was no use. The scores were just not going to pan out in my favor. I continued to dispute lowly graded calls where a white co-worker did the same or worse, but when I proved myself in one battle I found myself fighting something else out of the clear blue as the company attempted to put me on at least five finals that they could not get to stick.

Finally, a white young female who was in the Supervisor Training course with me became the next supervisor. Ironically, she was trained at least four training classes after me. Her last job was at Arby's. That's when reality kicked in for me. Is there any other option for me other than to move to a different state (I live in the south)? How can I overcome this without becoming bitter and without losing momentum?

Thank you,

A: Dear Kimberly,

Feeling judged for anything more (or less) than the manner and content of our work is offensive, frustrating and disheartening. The resultant discouragement can derail careers and cost companies the contributions of valuable employees. There’s nothing positive in the scenario you've described—unless you can make this a launch pad to change.

You don’t sound like a victim, and that’s good. Victims lack power, no matter how qualified and capable they may be in performing their jobs. You sound instead like someone who has encountered one roadblock too many and is beginning to question the map.

Start with your supervisor. Seek information and understanding first. You’re interpreting what is evident to you. This may or may not give you a full picture. So, ask for a meeting in which you will clarify your desire to build a career with the company and ask what you can do to further this aim. In a non-confrontational manner, ask about the scoring system. A “score” should be a quantifiable measure. Where are you falling short of your peers? What must you do to differentiate yourself? What made the former “would you like curly fries with that?” employee a more desirable choice for a supervisory position?

Listen. Take notes. Stick with facts over feelings. If none of it makes sense and you gather that your boss is being less than genuine regarding his promotional practices, proceed to human resources and ask for a joint meeting with your supervisor. Again, stick with the facts you’ve been given but ask about apparent inconsistencies.

At this point, either an understanding will be reached and a path will open, or you will find that your obstruction requires heavy lifting —such as legal assistance— for removal. If this becomes the case, you will want to move expediently as there may be a statute of limitations for your legal recourse.

Before you begin, however, please reconsider your use of "us" and "we" ("All of us African Americans", "We watched…"). The goal is to be seen as an individual with unique skills and abilities. Discrimination includes generalized judgments that ignore the individual. While you may feel you are fighting on behalf of a group (and it is more than unfortunate if that is the case), the battle ultimately must be about the individual -- you -- and the way a company is measuring your job performance. Keep it about your job performance until there is firm quantifiable evidence that your employer's response is not about your job performance.

Good luck, and fire up that momentum, so that you can actively choose your next steps.

If you have a question for Heather, email her at Heather@heatherdugan.com and maybe she'll answer it in her next column!