The Many Faces of Workplace Discrimination | Aiman-Smith & Marcy
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The Many Faces of Workplace Discrimination – 2 Examples of Unacceptable “Friendly” Workplace Harassment

Workplace discrimination comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be angry and prejudicial or friendly and well-meaning. It can be casual or targeted, have some specific goal or simply be floating around the company culture. The biggest problem with workplace discrimination and harassment is that the vast majority of cases don’t look like what we’ve been trained to expect. Too many episodes of Mad Men and Law and Order SVU have us thinking that all workplace discrimination is overt sexual harassment. While sexual harassment is still an ongoing problem, it doesn’t take a slap on the rear to qualify as harassment and workplace prejudice doesn’t require overt racial slurs to be negatively biased.

Discrimination Stereotyping vs Reality

Not every instance of workplace discrimination and harassment is what you might think. Often the worst instances occur when someone feels they are doing the right thing by following an internal, if flawed, moral code. Stereotypical discrimination, the “undeniable” kind, involves direct sexualization, unfriendly touching, and direct insults. But today we’re going to look at two examples of workplace harassment and discrimination that look “friendly” on the outside because it’s delivered with a smile but are still harmful to you and your work environment.

“You’re My Work Mom”

The vast majority of sexual harassment involves some kind of desire or intent. Workplace attraction has always been a tricky obstacle course to cross, but what do you do when you find yourself being sexually harassed… without the sex? One story we’ve heard involves a middle-aged team lead (let’s call her Nora) who took part in training a new younger male coworker. The young man came from a conservative background, was very nice, but soon started calling Nora his “work mom”. This started as a kind of weird joke until he began calling her “mom” in front of the customers, who were confused and congratulated her on having such a polite son.

The problem is that Nora wasn’t comfortable with the interaction or anyone mistaking her relationship with the coworker. She asked him multiple times to stop and, nice as the kid was, he didn’t. He continued to call her “mom” in front of coworkers, customers, and management. This is a form of workplace discrimination because the young man A) fixated on the fact that his trainer was a middle-aged woman, and B) wouldn’t stop after being asked multiple times. Sexual harassment comes in a lot of different packages and you don’t have to tolerate it in any form.

“This is Jane, She’s Disabled”

Another story we’ve heard is of an employee (let’s call her Jane) with a prosthetic leg. It wasn’t obvious, it didn’t get in the way, and the prosthetic did not in any way hinder Jane’s ability to perform work tasks. In other words, Jane did not consider herself handicapped for the purposes of work. However, when one of their coworkers found out about the prosthetic, they made it their business to tell the whole world. Any time Jane’s name came up or the coworker was introducing Jane to a new customer, he’d find a way to mention Jane’s disability. ¬†Jane was constantly dealing with comments like “This is Jane, she’s Disabled you know” or “Don’t ask Jane to do that, her prosthetic leg might be a problem”. He said it with a smile and a laugh, but Jane didn’t appreciate the comments and asked his coworker to stop, which the coworker agreed to but still continued making their comments.

It soon got out of hand, with customers and new coworkers treating Jane like they should walk eggshells. This is absolutely a form of workplace discrimination. It may not seem hostile or directed at the subject, but obsessing over something like gender, age, family status, or disability status is a form of discrimination, especially when it starts to create problems in the workplace.

Are you the victim of another “unique” or “friendly” form of workplace harassment or discrimination? As these examples show, it doesn’t have to look like classic harassment, have a sexual or financial motive, or be targeted for a mean reason to make a hostile workplace. If you or someone you know is being targeted and harassed at work and management won’t do anything, contact us today.