The Rise of Racial Profiling and Discrimination in the Workplace and What You Can Do About It

By now you have probably already seen the viral video that is going around involving the arrest of two African-American men at a Philadelphia store. These two men entered a Starbucks and asked to use the bathroom, but an employee informed them that it was only for paying customers. When the men sat down in the store without ordering anything, the manager decided to call the police. When the police arrived at the establishment, the two men were arrested for trespassing as the friend that they were waiting for arrived at the store. This viral video has triggered many different reactions. Members of Black Lives Matter PA held a rally outside of Starbucks and some protesters even went inside the store to confront the manager. Celebrities and politicians have also been calling for action, including Kevin Hart and Jim Kenney, who are both Philadelphia natives. After apologizing for the incident, Starbucks’ CEO, Kevin Johnson, announced that all stores will be closed on May 29, 2018, for racial-bias education.

This store is not the first, nor will it be the last, to be involved in racial profiling. Racial profiling occurs when a judgment is made about an individual based on the color of their skin or their appearance of a specific ethnicity. There are some alarming statistics regarding racial profiling in the United States. You’d think that by now people would be more understanding and take a minute before assuming the worst in people based on the way they look. As an employer or HR professional, I am sure you are aware of the consequences of racial profiling and discrimination in the workplace. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is the federal law that protects employees from discrimination in the workplace based on race, sex, religion, age, disability, and so on. Discrimination is prohibited in all aspects of employment including hiring, firing, layoffs, pay, promotions, and fringe benefits. States do not stand on the sidelines when it comes to discrimination in the workplace. State legislation covering workplace discrimination is fairly widespread and generally mirrors federal law in prohibiting discrimination based on race. The primary differences are in the procedures used and agencies contacted to make a claim of discrimination. You can learn more about race discriminations laws in your state here. To avoid being the next racial profile/discrimination news story, there are some steps you can follow.

Educate Yourself and Your Staff

In Starbucks’ case, it wasn’t the HR professional or the CEO who made the mistake, it was simply an employee who was working at the time. This is why it is very important to educate all of your staff on racial bias. Sadly, it took Starbucks to be a trending topic for them to do so. Educating yourself and your employees is not that hard. You can start by checking out how other companies in your industry deal with racial profiling and discrimination and do what they are doing. After all, there’s no need to recreate the wheel. There are many free videos you can find online that you can share with your staff, as well as articles and even educational posters. You should always check and see if you are up-to-date with all employment laws, such as the one mentioned above. Other important employment laws you should be familiar with are the following:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA), which protects men and women who perform substantially equal work in the same establishment from sex-based wage discrimination.

  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older.

  • Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended (ADA), which prohibits employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in the private sector, and in state and local governments.

  • Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibit discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities who work in the federal government.

  • Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), which prohibits employment discrimination based on genetic information about an applicant, employee, or former employee.

  • The Civil Rights Act of 1991, which, among other things, provides monetary damages in cases of intentional employment discrimination.

To learn more about workplace discrimination laws, click here.

Be Aware of the Signs

There are many signs you can spot to realize that racial discrimination might be an issue at your workplace. Let’s begin with a simple, yet obvious one: stereotyping. Often based on misconceptions and incomplete information, stereotyping is particularly harmful as it portrays false generalizations and attributes the same characteristics to all members of a group, ignoring victims as individuals in their own right. While it is rare to find Human Resource professionals who actively refuse to consider resumes that are submitted by people of color, the issue instead falls to what we as a society consider to be “normal.” Historically, the American workforce is made up of white, male, middle-class individuals. That’s why when it comes to hiring, we tend to continue to hire in that demographic. Luckily, those statistics are starting to change. When it comes time to hire next time, approach the process with an open mind and try to bring in some candidates for an interview that you maybe wouldn’t typically reach out to. You might be surprised at the talent you’ll find this way. Another sign of race discrimination in the workplace is hostility. An example of hostility is a Hispanic woman being told she is too sassy or a black woman being told she is too aggressive, or even a Muslim man being criticized for not drinking alcohol at social events. There are innumerable cases where people of color are criticized for being “too something” when their white peers have similar reactions, simply because of underlying biases against the color of their skin. Managers and HR staff should be able to spot unfair criticism, mocking, or hostility towards racialized individuals. Once spotted, immediate actions should be taken. Not sure what to do or how to handle the situation? Check out my blog “Discrimination in the Workplace and How to Handle It”!

Be Prepared for Anything

Do you think Kevin Johnson was expecting his company to be on the news for racial profiling and discrimination last week? Chances are he wasn’t, but I can assure you he was prepared for it. As an employer and HR professional, you should always take the steps to avoid these kinds of things, but you should also be prepared in case it does happen to your company. In Johnson’s case, he personally met with the two men who were victims of racial profiling at one of his stores, publicly apologized, and is now making sure all his staff is properly trained. Other than educating yourself and your staff, you should make sure to have clear company policies. If you haven’t already, you should consider implementing an anti-discrimination policy in your company and include it in your employee handbook. The line between employment protections from discrimination and protections from harassment is not clearly defined, but anti-discrimination policies typically emphasize the responsibility of the employer and anti-harassment policies emphasize the responsibility of employees. Often, anti-harassment and nondiscrimination statements are wrapped into the same policy language.

Lastly, you should invest in a good lawyer and have his or her number on hand. Trust me, at the end of the day, a lawyer can save you lots of money. Make sure the lawyer is knowledgeable about workplace discrimination and is up-to-date with all employment laws. You never know when an employee will file a claim. If more than one employee complains of racial profiling or discrimination by their coworkers or staff members, you should consider investigating the case. Many law firms and private consulting firms will do the investigation for you for a fee.

If you are an employee and believe you are being discriminated at your workplace you can read about the EEO Complaint Process here.