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Ask The Experts: I Think I’m Being Discriminated Against–What Should I Do?

A reader shares a difficult dilemma–what if you think you are being discriminated against but you can’t prove it?

Ask The Experts: I Think I’m Being Discriminated Against–What Should I Do?
[Photo: Flickr user Maryam Abdulghaffar]

Some work problems are straight forward: How do I ask for a raise? How do I deal my micromanaging boss? Other problems are more nuanced, like this week’s reader question about possible discrimination.

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We turn to psychologist Art Markman for guidance.

Dear FC,‬

I’ve worked at a professional association in Washington, D.C., for nearly seven years, and my title has only gone from “manager” to “senior manager,” and my only salary increases have been small cost-of-living raises.

All of the other employees who started around the same time and at the “manager” level (there are about five of us) are now at the “director” level and have had their salaries increase to match.

I have overseen a membership segment that has grown 26% in the last year with a 92% member retention rate, compared to our general membership which has declined by about the same percentage and has a retention rate of approximately 75%. In short, I am bringing money into the organization.

I suspect the reason that I haven’t gotten more salary increases or a promotion is that I have a chronic illness that has at times required me to work from home for extended time periods. There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that I’ve gotten my work done effectively whether from home or from the office by my supervisor, who praises me constantly.

I’ve always made sure I have the documents that our HR department has required for these work-from-home time periods, and have always met my deadlines.

I brought the lack of title increase up to my boss a few months ago and she was very uncomfortable and tacitly suggested that I look for another job because there was no opportunity for upward mobility in my current position.

I think I’m being discriminated against for having a chronic illness. What should I do?

Sincerely,

Deflated in D.C.


Dear Deflated:

I am sorry to hear about your illness. It sounds like you have worked hard to be as effective as possible at work despite the health issues.

The fundamental problem here is one of communication. Nobody working for a company should have to read the tea leaves to figure out where they stand within the organization. You should not be forced to compare yourself to other people who have been working for the company at about the same time to get feedback about how your contribution to the organization is being valued. Instead, you should be getting regular feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of your performance on a regular basis.

If you have been getting yearly (or more frequent) performance evaluations, you should read those over to see if there are any hints about what issues might be bothering your boss. If not, it is time to have an open discussion rather than relying on “tacit suggestions.”

One of the key elements in this discussion has to focus on the criteria along which you (and your peers) are being evaluated. From your standpoint, the hard numbers matter. You focus on membership growth and retention in your letter. Your sense, then, is that this bottom-line ought to be the basis of the way that employees are being evaluated.

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It is possible, though, that there are other elements to job performance that also matter to the organization. The overall evaluation of your performance may involve some additional factors beyond the raw numbers. The problem is that you have not been given any specific feedback. You deserve to have a better sense of how you are being evaluated.

A second issue, though, has to do with what advancement within the organization means. In some organizations, a new title is simply a recognition of a job well done and longevity within the company. For example, there is not that much of a difference between what an associate professor and a full professor a university does. The title of “Professor” reflects that someone has continued to do excellent work in their career.

However, in most organizations, titles also come along with additional responsibilities. It would be useful to know more about the difference between the “manager” and “director” titles. It may be that you are able to carry out your manager-level duties effectively, even when you have to be out of the workplace for extended periods, but that there are additional responsibilities that a director-level employee has to take on that would be hindered by working from home.

In this case, the lack of advancement may not be a reflection of dissatisfaction with your performance in your current role, but rather a concern about your ability to perform an expanded role effectively.

Again, though, this is information you should be getting more explicitly.

Ultimately, of course, it is possible that the organization is discriminating against you based on your health condition. There is a lot of information you need, though, before that will be clear.

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After you have some of these (potentially difficult) conversations, you will be in a better position to judge why your career has not advanced as you hoped. You can always talk with people in human resources after you have these initial conversations if you still have concerns about your career path.


If you have a dilemma you’d like our panel of experts to answer, send your questions to AskFC@fastcompany.com or tweet us a question using #AskFC.

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