How To Recognize (Subtle) Discrimination

meeting around a table with devicesRecognizing obvious discrimination has never been so easy with the excessive amount of information on the many faces of discrimination; however, subtle discrimination continues to make the workplace hellish for certain people. Sometimes individuals are unaware that they are implementing subtle discrimination against other coworkers for their race, genderdisability, age, or religion.

Subtle discrimination is often called “everyday racism.” The actions behind this phrase refer to when people ignore or treat someone else differently. Although seemingly small, these subtle acts build up to have powerful influence on the work environment and the individual’s mental and emotional health. Everyday racism shows up in body language, speech, and other small behaviors.

Subtle Discrimination Happens Every Day

For example, when a black worker for a well-known internet provider visited a client and circled the property looking for the right wiring, the police showed up. They accused him of walking around and looking for things to steal. The black worker was wearing his company shirt and driving a company van, but no one seemed to see anything but his skin color.

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What Does Subtle Discrimination Look Like in the Workplace?

Gender Discrimination

Gender discrimination plagues both men and women in the career world. Although a common type of gender discrimination is against females, either in over-sexualizing them or expecting them to take “feminine office roles,” men also face gender discrimination. For men,  management might expect them to put in long hours because they have a family to support or they might not consider a man for a secretarial position that he applied for because it’s not a “manly” job. Gender discrimination often is rooted in the socially accepted gender roles.

Part-Time Discrimination

Employees who work less than the full-time schedule of 40 hours in a week usually receive the label of part-time employees. Since part-time employees work less than full-time employees, sometimes they might be viewed as less productive or lazy. This can include the assumption that part-time employees aren’t serious about the work, and this assumption might lead an employer to treat you differently, overlooking you for special projects or work opportunities.

Family Care Discrimination

Discrimination against employees with family responsibility has been around for years, and it can mean anything from pregnant employees to employees with children to employees caring for elderly parents. Sometimes workplaces look down on people who must split their attention between career and family, deeming them as less committed. In other situations, employees deal with difficulty when they use their lawful right to FMLA leave, sometimes being penalized by their company or coworkers for taking leave.

The Subtle Discrimination of Language

Words often reveal the beliefs of the speaker. In the workplace, subtle discrimination shows up in the way that coworkers, clients, and employers speak to each other. Some people might say that they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies, but they might contradict themselves on a routine basis with disparaging remarks about certain groups of people. Pay attention to the language that coworkers, bosses, and clients use when speaking with you and others.

Possible Female Gender Discrimination

  • “It’s too hard for women.”
  • “Are you in HR?”
  • “You’re too pretty”
  • “Too male-dominated”
  • “But, you’re just going to be a mom.”

Possible Male Gender Discrimination

  • “Nice guys finish last.”
  • “Man up”
  • “This is a woman thing.”
  • “You’re the nurse?”
  • “Boys will be boys.”
  • “She hit you?”

Possible Racial Discrimination

  • “Your people”
  • “You’re from the wrong side of the tracks”
  • “We can’t fire you because the law protects you.”

Possible Age Discrimination

  • “Can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
  • “Are you comfortable working under a manager who’s younger than you?”
  • “We need new blood around here.”
  • “Methuselah.”
  • “When are you going to retire?”

Relational Discrimination on the Job

Employees work together every day, forming opinions and assumptions about one another that can impact employment decisions, performance reports, and job opportunities. While these body language cues help teams work together, it’s these cues that can also cause misunderstanding and poor team dynamics. In some cases, this subtle discrimination prompts illegal employment action against protected classes.


Rob knows he isn’t good with people. So he doesn’t like to participate in group activities, even if it’s for a good cause. He’d rather just do his work in his cubicle. His coworkers don’t say it, but they think he’s weird, reclusive, and not committed to work. And Rob is often overlooked for work opportunities since many of the connections are made during the company’s extracurricular activities.


Silva struggles to make eye contact with others. Although she works hard, her boss feels like Silva is not honest or interested in her work since she doesn’t make eye contact. Every year, Silva receives low scores for teamwork and communication, and she doesn’t know why. Her boss also never chooses her for the projects that would stretch her professionally.

Although some people who live out these examples on a daily basis might be poor workers, it’s also possible that they’re dealing with different cultural backgrounds, disabilities, or family status. Those who experience subtle discrimination and are a part of a protected class should consider hiring a lawyer to file a lawsuit for discrimination.

How To Recognize (Subtle) Discrimination

Recognizing subtle discrimination means understanding unconscious bias. Many times, unconscious bias motivates subtle discrimination against coworkers, bosses, and clients, which in turn can become illegal negative employment action. Sometimes, people are unaware of the fact that they are discriminating.

Increase Awareness

Create a safe place for employees to discuss subtle discrimination, be educated on unconscious bias, and bridge the gap of ongoing subtle discrimination. In some case, education can stop discrimination. But, of course, it’s impossible to bring awareness about every type of disability and culture to every employee. But, educating employees to be aware of their unconscious bias can help the work environment.

Speak with Someone Outside of the Situation

Sometimes subtle discrimination is so subtle that another perspective on the interactions can help shed light on next steps. Choose to speak with someone who doesn’t work with you and will keep the conversation private. Another set of eyes on the situation will help reveal if discrimination is occurring.

Speak Out Against Discrimination

Studies show that people who speak up about even the most subtle discrimination gain more self-esteem and relieve the buildup of stress while those who don’t report often suffered more stress and a decrease in self esteem. Protect your mental health by speaking up. When you report cases of discrimination, this record creates a paper trail that can support a lawsuit if  the discrimination continues.

Chat With A Discrimination Lawyer

Lawyers are trained in recognizing discrimination on every level and knowing what can be legally done for you. A lawyer helps to create a legal strategy to pursue your legal rights under the law for illegal employment discrimination.


If you have experienced or recognized discrimination in your workplace, contact a discrimination lawyer who will know how to navigate your case and your rights under the law.

Don’t hesitate, talk to a discrimination attorney: (412) 626-5626 or