We all want to feel comfortable, welcome, and respected in our place of work, and you actually have the legal right to a safe work environment.
Yet, toxic workplace cultures and unfair treatment are still very common, being the number one factor causing workers to leave their jobs during the Great Resignation. In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that it saw more than 67,000 workplace discrimination charges in 2020 and secured $439 million for victims of discrimination.
When you’re being bullied or harassed, it can be difficult to know how to handle unfair treatment. Is what you’re experiencing actually unfair treatment? How should you deal with it? How do you talk to your boss about it? Who should you go to for help? When should you start looking for a new job?
Here’s how to recognize unfair treatment at work, how to report it, and how to move on afterward.
Read more: A Toxic Workplace Can Be Fixed
Examples of unfair treatment at work
Unfair treatment is an umbrella term that includes harassment and discrimination. Although no one should harass or discriminate against anyone for any reason, it becomes illegal when “protected characteristics” are involved. These traits include your race, sex, religion, pregnancy or parental status, disability, age, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, and genetic information.
Unfair treatment, though, isn’t always classified as discrimination and can happen at every stage of employment—hiring, salary, training, benefits, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, firing, and so on.
Here are a few examples of illegal unfair treatment at work:
You get skipped over for a promotion that you’d been promised because you become pregnant.
An employee makes fun of your religion in your team’s Slack channel.
Your employer starts hinting that you should leave your job because of your age by saying something like, “Isn’t it time you start thinking about retirement?”
Your male coworker is paid double your salary for the exact same type of work.
During your interview, the hiring manager doesn’t ask you about your qualifications, but whether you think your kids will get in the way of you doing your job.
Here are a few examples of unfair treatment at work that isn’t illegal:
Your coworkers make “jokes” about your non-English speaking accent.
Your manager constantly spreads rumors about your inability to pay attention to detail at work.
How to deal with unfair treatment at work
Now that you’ve recognized that you’re being treated unfairly, it’s time to take action. You can try to remedy the situation by speaking privately with a specific individual who’s mistreating you, but if nothing’s changing, take advantage of your workplace rights and stand up for yourself.
Document every instance of mistreatment
You should document anything and everything related to you being harassed, intimidated, or discriminated against—emails, Slack conversations, voicemails, texts, social media posts, internal memos—and the dates and times that they occurred. If there were any witnesses to the event, write down their names as well. In the case that the unfair treatment becomes illegal and you need to file a formal complaint, you’ll need the evidence to back up your claim.
Try to write down your version of the story as soon as the unfair treatment happens in order to accurately transcribe the details of your experience so you can refer back to specific language and phrases used if you need to.
Report unfair treatment to your boss or HR department
After you’ve gathered evidence, it’s time to bring up the issue to your boss or human resources department. Explain what’s happened and why you feel the work environment is unsafe, and then you can ask for help or advice on the situation.
Sometimes it can be beneficial to bring up unfair treatment as soon as it happens, before you’ve recorded months-long unfair treatment. Staci Smith, human resources business partner at Compass and owner of Staci Smith Consulting, says, “Often, employees think they need to bring documents they have collected over time before they can raise an issue. Instead, that just exacerbates the issue. My biggest advice is to go to HR the moment you are uncomfortable or something happens.”
It’s completely normal to feel anxious going into a conversation like this with a higher-up, but if you’re prepared with what you want to say, you can feel more confident that you’ve done your part in standing up for yourself.
Here’s an example of how you can start the conversation with your boss or someone in HR:
“I wanted to meet with you to bring an issue to your attention. The past few times I’ve met with my manager, they’ve made jokes about my speech impediment, and they’ve even mentioned that they’re surprised I was able to find a romantic partner because of it. I’ve felt harassed and extremely uncomfortable, and I would like for this unfair treatment to stop immediately. Is there anything you can do to help ameliorate the situation?”
Smith says that once you elevate your concerns, your company has your complaint on record and subsequently has the responsibility to investigate. “If employers don’t take your claims seriously and start an investigation, they could be held accountable. If your HR representative isn’t taking your claim seriously, then you have the option to file a lawsuit against the company and individuals involved.”
Read more: How to Report Discrimination at Work
File a formal complaint through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
You can file a formal discrimination complaint with the EEOC—if you work at a business with 15 or more employees—whenever you believe the unfair treatment you’re experiencing at work has become illegal.
In order to file a complaint, you’ll need to provide a description of the discriminatory action, when the action took place, why you believe the discrimination occurred (for example, because of your race, sexual orientation, age, etc.), the name of your employer, and their contact information.
Being subjected to unfair treatment can push you to your breaking point, causing you to consider quitting your job. But keep in mind, if you’re going to sue your company, you should wait to quit your job until you go through the entire EEOC process. (Here’s a real-life example of a woman who did just that, suing Amazon for harassment and discrimination while still working for the company.) Quitting while there’s an open company claim or EEOC investigation could jeopardize your case since you’ll no longer be protected as an employee at the company.
Meeting with an attorney who understands employment law is a good idea as well, so that they can explain these rights and nitty gritty details of filing in more explicit depth to you.
When is it time to find a new job?
Simply put, if the unfair treatment doesn’t cease, your employer doesn’t take your concerns seriously, and you continue to feel uncomfortable, it might be time to look for a new job. There are companies out there that will treat you with respect, and you can use our guides below to help you get started looking:
Unfair treatment at work can leave you feeling insecure, anxious, or depressed. Make sure you’re taking care of your emotional and mental health. It takes time to recover from a toxic environment, and you might feel fatigued, exhausted, depleted, or burnt out for a while. Grieve the negative experience, learn from it what you can, and identify your values, morals, and goals for the future in terms of finding an enriching positive workplace culture.
If you need, speak to a therapist, visit a support group, and surround yourself with supportive friends and family.