by Mrinal Gokhale
For many years, Milwaukee has established a national reputation for high segregation, high black unemployment and extreme school achievement gaps between white and African-American students.
Some allege that Milwaukee area workplace discrimination and harassment against people of color isn’t discussed enough, although they feel it’s problematic.
Dimitri Mack, employment services representative at America Works, thinks some may not speak up against workplace injustices due to fear of termination.
“African-Americans may think HR won’t take their complaints seriously, and it’s very hard to prove workplace discrimination in Wisconsin,” he said.
Spending years helping former inmates find employment amongst Milwaukee’s most impoverished zip codes, Mack cites transportation, education, and work history as common employment barriers.
He also feels Wisconsin employers tend to be unforgiving towards lower wage workers.
“With minimum wage jobs, they’re expected to perform at a high level for a low wage. Employers should be more compassionate and not fire employees for missing a shift, because maybe he or she had childcare issues or the bus was late,” he explained.
To address workplace harassment, Mack said diversity training and adding more people of color in company HR departments is a good step.
“We’re all guilty of having prejudices, and this won’t solve everything, but people tend to relate to their own race.”
He recalled an example from his previous career with the YWCA, a nonprofit organization for racial justice and workforce development.
“A recruiter once interviewed a black man from Missouri, saying he answered questions nicely, but avoided eye contact, so she planned not to hire him. I explained to her that he was actually brought up to avoid eye contact with white people, and she changed her mind.” In situations where employees experience discrimination of any kind, Mack feels communication is key to dealing.
“Sometimes, it’s not what you say, but how you say it, and many conflicts can be avoided by not overreacting and communicating well instead,” he said.
He also stresses the importance of documenting any incidents in writing.
“For example, if someone calls you a derogatory term, contact your supervisor immediately,” he advised.
“Documenting it is more important than feeling comfortable discussing it, because a lawsuit is not about one situation, it’s about many.”
He also suggested meeting both an immediate supervisor and his or her boss if necessary.
“But that may do more harm than good” he warned.
“Address the issue if it impacts your job performance, but do so professionally.”
Attorney and former NAACP President James Hall receives calls daily for workplace harassment lawsuits.
He explained the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against protected statuses including age, ancestry, arrest and conviction record, race, ethnicity, religion and more.
“Usually, employee handbooks detail dress code, prohibition of profanity, cell phone use, the importance of showing up on time, and other rules employees should follow.”
He suggested new employees familiarize themselves with these protocols and expectations and come prepared to work. He said about seventy percent of perceived slights don’t make a basis for a claim under federal or state law.
“Of thirty percent of situations that may present a basis for a claim, one-half to two-thirds may not involve evidence sufficient to prevail.”
Perhaps racial microaggressions are more commonly experienced in the workplace than obvious discriminatory acts.
Microaggression is the casual degradation of socially marginalized groups such as people of color, those with disabilities, and women.
Some perpetrators are well-meaning whiles others are intentional.
“Some researchers suggest these comments and subtle actions are more damaging than overt racism since they’re overlooked and downplayed by everyone but the victim,” said Hall.
He went on to say microaggression impacts a victim’s mental health, creating feelings of hostility, anger or frustration towards perpetrators.
However, employees can respond in a manner that doesn’t lead to disciplinary action.
“Use a sports analogy. Think, ‘I won’t foul out of the game because of this,’” Hall advised.
Although there are no easy solutions to workplace discrimination, Hall advises employees to remember their rights.
“If blatant discrimination is clear or the problems cannot be resolved through HR, consider filing a claim with the Equal Rights Division or Equal Opportunity Commission within 300 days of the incidents.”