Racial discrimination in the workplace is illegal in America, yet it is still all too common: Over a quarter of all complaints filed to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 2010 to 2017 came from Black employees alleging racial discrimination, according to data obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
If co-workers of different races are being treated differently, there could be workplace racism happening on your team.
When it’s your word against your company’s, gathering evidence is key for future lawsuits or for documenting your truth as you see it. “Employers are not just going to roll over and accept what you say is true, and they are going to hire equally talented defense lawyers to defend them,” said Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of the nonprofit Workplace Fairness and a former employment lawyer.
This means you need to document the racism you experience at work. Legal and mental health experts shared advice on what and how to document, as well as why it matters even if you don’t bring a complaint:
Don’t use company equipment.
If you’re going to document your negative experiences at work, don’t do it on company equipment if you want it to stay private, Ndjatou said. “There is no expectation of privacy when you do use your employer’s software and hardware.”
If you write it down, he said, stick to your personal devices, or pen and paper can work, too. Don’t leave this evidence at a worksite, though.
“Keep your evidence in your purse, briefcase, pocket or somewhere the employer can’t take it away from you if you are fired,” said Donna Ballman, an employment lawyer and author of “Stand Up for Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards.”
This is what you should compile in your documentation:
Keep track of direct evidence, such as racial comments, jokes and stereotypes made by your colleagues, Ballman advised.
“Take photos if there is something physically posted. Print out copies of anything written. If it’s a text message, take a screenshot and print,” she said.
If there’s no paper trail, make one. Keep a detailed contemporaneous record of face-to-face conversations. This is useful for anyone who wants to take legal action. Boeing whistleblower John Barnett previously told HuffPost that to build his case about aviation safety, he used contemporaneous notes to keep track of who said what when his managers wanted interactions off the record: “If I had a face-to-face with my manager, I would go back to my desk and send myself an email saying everything that was discussed,” Barnett said.
“You want to make sure that the essential interactions are memorialized. You can go back later and fill in details,” Ndjatou said.
You want your notes to be taken while your memory is fresh, so write them out shortly after a racist interaction has occurred. Ndjatou said details, including where you were, if it was a secluded environment, who was around and what time of day it was, can matter.
Ndjatou gave the example of a co-worker using a racial slur at work: “I’m going to want to know, did someone hear that? Was it loud? How did you react? Did you leave the office for the day? Did you tell someone immediately?”
Identify a colleague who does substantially similar work but is racially different from you. Evidence that compares how you are treated at work compared to how they are treated can make or break cases, Ndjatou said.
“If you were disciplined for something that co-workers of a different race do, and they are not disciplined, that could be evidence of race discrimination,” Ballman said. “If you were qualified for a promotion but someone less qualified got it, and they were of a different race, that could be race discrimination.“
Note how colleagues who share your race are being treated, such as who gets choice assignments or who gets overtime, and document this as potential evidence as well.
When debating what to include, it’s “better to be [overly] broad than to be too conservative,” Ndjatou said, and then to let a lawyer decide what’s the best evidence for the case.
What to do with the evidence you’ve gathered.
Once you have gathered documentation of unfair treatment, you can report it to human resources and give them an opportunity to correct the situation.
But be aware that alleging racial discrimination can result in retaliation by your employer. Ndjatou cautioned that people you consider allies within the company may also disappoint you when it comes to corroborating your statements.
Know that you don’t have to go to HR if you believe the discrimination has affected your income. “If the discrimination affected you in the wallet, such as a demotion, denial of promotion, suspension without pay or termination, you don’t need to complain under the company policy first,” Ballman said. “You can go straight to an attorney or EEOC and report it.”
Look up your local field office at EEOC.gov.
Know there are mental benefits to journaling your experience, too.
Even if you never come forward with what you document, writing down what you experienced can be validating when you are surrounded by people telling you otherwise.
“You have to validate the voices that are unheard.”
– Elishia Durrett Johnson, mental health counselor
Elishia Durrett Johnson, a mental health counselor with clients experiencing racial trauma, said this type of trauma can have long-lasting effects on your health. Racial trauma can stem from major experiences of racism, such as covert and overt workplace discrimination or hate crimes, or it can result from the accumulation of micro-aggressions experienced every day, she said.
“It makes you hyper-vigilant, hyperaware, and hypersensitive,” Johnson said. “That looks differently within different people.” For some people, racial trauma might come out as aggression, while others may become more reserved and not leave their house. Johnson said she has had clients who are going through racial trauma call and say they cannot get out of bed.
She noted that not everyone responds to journaling, but for those who do, it can be helpful with identifying your emotions and validating your feelings. “You have to validate the voices that are unheard,” Johnson said. “Some people can get their rage out of them, their built-up frustration, anger, disappointment ― whatever feelings you want to insert there ― out onto paper.“
If you don’t want to document your experiences, don’t bottle up those feelings. Share them with someone you trust.
“If you are in a position in which you have no control and you cannot get out of that position, I always say talk to someone,” Johnson said. “Look for support; it might not necessarily be at your workplace…. Know that you’re not stuck. We can find a way out of this, and a way to get out of this is through utilizing supports. Do not battle this alone.”