Dealing with discrimination against a friend or colleague

When someone is being discriminated against, personal support can be very important indeed. This is partly because the person who is being discriminated against can be left feeling very vulnerable and threatened. Offering your support can therefore be invaluable. However, it is important to make sure that you avoid putting him or her under pressure to pursue a particular course of action. A person who is being discriminated against is likely to feel under immense pressure already, and so you have to be careful that you do not add to this unwittingly. The ways in which you can help can be very varied, ranging from simply listening and showing that you are there to help if need be, through to being a formal representative at a hearing. You will therefore need to think carefully about what is the best way to provide support and, as already emphasised, make sure that what you offer does not go above and beyond what your friend or colleague wants from you. Sometimes our own sense of injustice and discrimination can lead us to push for a particular course of action which may not be well suited to the individual concerned. For example, you may feel that he or she should pursue a formal complaint or grievance procedure or even commence legal action. However, this is a huge step, and it is understandable that he or she may be reluctant to do so. You should therefore he careful to ensure that your own feelings about the situation do not come to predominate, perhaps at the expense of his or her feelings. Sometimes all that is needed is moral support, to listen and show that you are concerned. However, at times what is needed may go beyond this. For example, it may be necessary to gather together evidence of the discrimination that is being claimed in order to convince a third party of the problem. You may well have a role in assisting in ensuring that this happens as effectively as possible. However, whatever steps you take, you should ensure that you do not do anything to antagonise the person being accused of discrimination or act in any other way which may make the situation any more tense or complicated than it needs to be. Although you may be acting in good faith, if it leads to extra tension for your friend or colleague, then it is unlikely that he or she will thank you for this. It should be remembered that issues relating to discrimination are complex and sensitive, and so you should be careful not to oversimplify matters or act in a way that could be seen to lack sensitivity. Discrimination can arouse strong emotions, and it is important that we do not allow ourselves to be carried away by these and thereby inadvertently make the situation worse. In all cases, you have to be led by the person who is being discriminated against even though you may wish to take a more active role at times. Try to imagine how it might feel for your friend or colleague to be in this situation and how it might feel to have a friend who tries to take over. Finally, you should remember to treat matters as confidential. If your friend or colleague chooses to make matters known more widely, then that is their choice, but it is clearly something you will need to leave in their control.

Dr Neil Thompson                        

Neil’s website and blog are at

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