What happens when disclosure goes wrong? When I started my disclosure series, I didn’t anticipate including an article regarding discrimination in the workplace. With all the protection and awareness regarding equal rights, one wishes to be hopeful that discrimination is a rare event. Unfortunately though, when there is disclosure or an apparent disability discrimination happens. It can be difficult to determine whether this different treatment is something that qualifies as discrimination.
Laws are put into place to protect employers and employees. It is always important to understand the local and federal laws and guidelines when you have a disability. It is also helpful to understand your company policies and/or other contracts in the workplace. If you need clarification on policies, it is important to ask your human resources representative (ideally in writing) and document whenever possible. Many people may need greater understanding of the laws, and will want to consult a lawyer and/or the civil department to have a better grasp on its impact for them as a person with a disability or for the employer who hires them.
Communication is always key to solving problems and another means of protection for everyone. It can be difficult to know whether asking questions or stating complaints can be helpful or hurtful when dealing with working relationships. In a larger company, a human resources employee can answer questions and it probably won’t affect the working relationship. In a smaller company, the person dealing with human resources may be your boss or co-worker, and questions may create conflict for the person with a disability. An employer might feel accused and deny or rationalize any wrong doing without even taking the time to listen to the complaint. Often times, people do things that might look like discrimination, but it is more related to lack of information, discomfort, lack of interest, or something else entirely. Most people do not want to cause others harm, and often a conversation can make people change. Unfortunately for some, a conversation may just make things worse, and result in a power struggle or they will attempt to help, but don’t follow through or change their behaviors. As an employer, it is very important that you take their complaints seriously and consult others for input. Keeping records of such statements can be helpful for everyone if a formal complaint is made at a later date.
Feeling like you are discriminated against can be difficult emotionally and physically. It is always helpful to have outside support and people to process with that you can trust. This may be a family member, a counselor, a lawyer, a support group, and/or a friend. Often we can sense things that are going on, but may not be able to quite articulate if it is actual discrimination or whether we want to address it. Many people, on some level, will have an emotional reaction to someone with a disability, and this is easy to sense when it is aimed in your direction. Learning how to react to this can help build bridges. However, when their biases result in different treatment that causes harm, more specific communication is generally needed. If communication doesn’t work you may want to take other actions. This could be filing a complaint, seeing a lawyer, look for a new job, observing and documenting, or some other option. Having people around to help you see your options and validate your experience can help ensure you make the best choices that work for you.
Being accused of discrimination is difficult for an employer. A lawsuit of discrimination would hurt a company’s reputation and cause financial harm. The supervisor might lose their job and/or have to go through an extensive evaluation of their actions. Taking the time to work through the issues, whenever possible, is always advised. Most people want to be treated well, and legal action is generally done when nothing else works. It is helpful to understand clearly what the person is looking for, and how specifically you can make it better. This may require listening to a lot of venting, and probing gently for clarification on what can be done. If needed, a mediator or human resources personnel might mediate to give a different perspective. It can be useful to have someone they trust sit in as well, to aid in reaching an agreement and/or understanding. Consulting with others to receive legal and general feedback can give guidance on questions to ask, and assist in processing through the employer’s own emotions. It is ok to have conflicts with a person who has a disability, but important that the same protocol is followed as is done with other employees.
Discrimination can diminish if we all choose to look more intently at the subject of discrimination. When we take the time to see how we treat certain people differently, we are on the path to making changes. All of us have biases that impact what we do. Ignoring these biases, however, can cause great harm especially when we act upon them continuously. The best way to change our own biases is to talk about them and confront them directly. Often this involves spending time with the people we are most afraid of, and learning to treat each person as an individual. Even in the most challenging cases, we always grow from these experiences as we choose to turn towards something better. With greater awareness, we can proactively make our work environments more satisfactory, where we embrace our fellow man and see the unique strengths we each bring.