Preventing Workplace Discrimination

Woman facing workplace discrimination

Despite increased awareness of the importance of promoting equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace, many employers still struggle with discrimination. 

Case in point: A 2020 survey by payroll and HR solutions provider ADP found that roughly 25% of employees in the UK experienced some form of discrimination. Meanwhile, a 2021 study by Thoughtworks shows that only 28% of UK workers feel their employers are doing enough to support diversity and inclusion in the workplace. 

This isn’t exactly surprising. Many of the practices in hiring, retention and promotion that lead to discrimination are deeply entrenched in the workplace — more so for companies in industries that certain demographic groups have long dominated. 

For instance,  a 2021 Women and the UK economy report shows that women are underrepresented in sectors like public administration and defence, manufacturing, and information and communication, among others. They’re also less likely to hold senior positions; the Women and the UK economy report found that 13% of men work as managers or directors, compared to just 8% of women. 

womens emplyment

Source: Women and the UK economy

But employers and workers may now also have to be mindful of factors in workplace discrimination beyond gender, ethnicity, colour and age. The Poly Evolution of the Workplace report, which surveyed over 2,000 hybrid workers in the UK, found that 57% expressed concerns they would face discrimination because of their current working arrangements, and 46% said they were worried working remotely would hinder their career development in their organisations. 

This development adds another layer of complexity to the challenge of preventing workplace discrimination, especially since remote working or hybrid doesn’t technically fall under the known drivers of direct discrimination in the workplace. 

But before diving into this topic, it’s important to first understand the meaning of workplace discrimination. 

What is discrimination in the workplace?

Employment discrimination happens when an employee or a group of employees are treated unfairly because of specific characteristics such as ethnicity, race and gender identity, among others. 

Whether done on purpose or accidentally, unlawful discrimination happens when someone is treated differently or worse because of these “protected characteristics.” Under the Equality Act 2010, these characteristics include:

  • Age;
  • Gender reassignment;
  • Being married or in a civil partnership;
  • Being pregnant or on maternity leave;
  • Disability; 
  • Race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin;
  • Religion or belief;
  • Sex;
  • Sexual orientation.

What are the 4 types of unlawful discrimination?

The Equality Act 2010 guidance also identifies four main types of discrimination

1. Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination refers to instances of unfair treatment because of a specific protected characteristic. Examples of direct discrimination include:

  • Racial or ethnic discrimination
  • Religious discrimination
  • Disability discrimination
  • Pregnancy discrimination  
  • Age discrimination
  • Sex and gender discrimination
  • LGBTQ+ discrimination

When in doubt, remember that the cause of direct discrimination can be attributed to one of three things:

  • you have a protected characteristic
  • someone thinks you have that protected characteristic (known as discrimination by perception)
  • you are connected to someone with that protected characteristic (known as discrimination by association)

2. Indirect discrimination

Discrimination can also be less obvious to casual observers. When organisations enact rules or guidelines that seemingly apply to everyone but place people with protected characteristics at an unfair disadvantage, they may be guilty of indirect discrimination. 

For example, an employer setting a minimum height requirement for a job in which height is a non-factor may discriminate disproportionately against women, who are generally shorter than men. Similarly, a company posting job adverts requiring “native-level” English could discriminate against workers of different nationalities who speak English as a second language. This is indirect discrimination based on ethnicity or race. 

These actions aren’t necessarily malicious. Very often, workplace discrimination stems from unconscious biases, which everyone has. 

Cloudbooking tip: If you want to learn more about unconscious biases you may have, you can take an online test from Harvard University.

3. Harassment

Harassment refers to unwanted behaviour causing offence or violation of someone’s dignity stemming from a protected characteristic or any connection with a protected characteristic. For example, workers bullying someone because of their sexual orientation are harassing that person. 

Other examples of unwanted behaviour include:

  • Spoken or written abuse (e.g., offensive remarks, offensive emails, text messages and online messages)
  • Offensive social media and website comments
  • Offensive and suggestive physical gestures 
  • Offensive and suggestive facial expressions
  • Offensive images and graffiti.

4. Victimisation

Victimisation refers to actions in response to protected acts or anticipation of protected acts. A protected act can be one of the following:

  • Filing discrimination claims or complaints under the Equality Act
  • Helping someone else or a group make discrimination claims, whether by providing information or showing evidence of discrimination
  • Making allegations against someone for discriminatory actions
  • Doing anything in connection with the Equality Act.

Common manifestations of workplace discrimination

Workplace discrimination can happen between employers and employees, between coworkers, and between employers and job applicants. The UK Government offers a list of common manifestations of workplace discrimination: 

  • Dismissal
  • Unfair employment terms and conditions
  • Unfair pay and benefits
  • Unequal promotion and transfer opportunities
  • Withholding access to training
  • Unfair recruitment practices
  • Redundancy.

While discrimination legislation protects employees from harassment and unfair treatment because of their characteristics, employers aren’t legally required to have a diverse workforce. This is why many workplaces continue to be dominated by people of a certain ethnicity, gender or demographic group. 

Is hybrid working the next workplace discrimination issue?

A Gallup poll conducted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic found that three in five Americans working from home wanted to continue working remotely after restrictions were lifted. These findings align with our 2021 Cloudbooking employee census, which found that  64% of US and UK workers want permanent hybrid working — a mix of in-office and remote working arrangements. 

Related Reading: The Hybrid Workplace: An Employee Census

These reports underscore what many employees have been asking their companies for years: more flexibility, whether in their place or hours of work. And why wouldn’t they? Multiple studies have shown that remote work results in better work-life balance and higher levels of productivity than working in a traditional office.

Related Reading: The Future of Working from Home: Hybrid Office or Remote Work?

But as the workplace of the future shifts away from offices being the default venue, some workers and leaders wonder if remote working will lead to a two-tier system. The advent of remote working could lead to situations where managers show favourable treatment to workers who spend more time in the office than those that don’t. 

As Perrine Farque, an award-winning diversity and inclusion expert at Inspired Human, shared in a Dropbox report, “Whether consciously or subconsciously, managers tend to promote the people they see more face to face. We need to make sure that, just because remote workers are less ‘visible’, they’re not overlooked.”

“Extra effort is required to avoid this kind of ‘two-tier’ workforce that might emerge in a hybrid world,” she added.

Of course, all this begs the question: Does discrimination against remote workers fall under the legal definition of workplace discrimination? 

Remote work discrimination could also mean discrimination against working parents, particularly women

If you go back to the definition of indirect discrimination, there are all kinds of scenarios where an employee’s preference for remote working could lead to discrimination issues.

For instance, according to the Modern Families Index 2021 survey by Bright Horizons, around 18% of working parents want to work remotely full-time after the pandemic. Of that number, 42% of women said they needed the flexibility of remote work to meet their childcare commitments.

In other words, showing favourable treatment to in-office workers could indirectly discriminate against women, who are more likely to be the primary providers of childcare — hence their preference for working from home. 

How to prevent workplace discrimination

Whether your goal is to prevent gender discrimination or ensure that your hybrid or remote teams don’t feel alienated, fighting workplace discrimination begins with proactive prevention. 

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) recommends four basic steps to prevent workplace discrimination. Though simple, these measures will help ensure that all your workers are treated fairly and reduce the risk of your organisation being held responsible for incidents of discrimination in the workplace. 

1. Create (and regularly update) an equality policy

An equality policy — also known as an equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policy — is a written document that affirms your commitment to promoting equality and preventing workplace discrimination. It outlines your actions to prevent discrimination in areas like recruitment, pay, personnel development, promotion and more.

The exact contents of your equality policy will be unique to your organisation, but you can include the following elements in your policy. 

  • Introductory statement: Write a statement explaining your goals and rationale for creating a working environment that promotes equality, diversity and inclusion.
  • Commitment to preventing discrimination: Immediately after the introduction, you want to write a section confirming that your organisation’s employment practices will not discriminate against people based on their protected characteristics. Your opposition to any form of employment discrimination must be explicit. 
  • Desired work environment: Outline the type of work environment your organisation wants to create. For example, you can specify that you want your workplace to be free of prejudice and discrimination. 
  • Best practices for management: You also want to highlight that when selecting people for employment, training or promotion, your decisions will be based on skills, attitude and potential. 
  • Values and principles: You could also add a list of bullet points summing up your values and principles in so far as EDI is concerned. 
  • Disciplinary actions: It’s not enough to just say that your organisation is committed to EDI. You want to reinforce that commitment by outlining actions that will be taken when someone is in breach of your policy.
  • Updates: Finally, you want to state that your policy is a living document. It will have to be updated as your company grows and evolves. 

It’s also a good idea to link your equality policy to your remote/hybrid working policy and vice versa. 

  • In your equality policy, state how flexible working arrangements improve work-life balance and offer more opportunities for people. 
  • Meanwhile, your remote/hybrid working policy should also outline procedures to ensure that workers are treated equally regardless of their geographic location.

Related Reading: ​​How to Write a Hybrid Working Policy: 9 Things to Include

2. Provide regular anti-discrimination training

Your entire organisation, from your C-suite to your entry-level staff members, can benefit from learning how biases and improper behaviour can affect others. 

When done right, anti-discrimination and harassment training can identify inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, outline positive practices and create a safer and more inclusive environment. 

Inclusion and diversity training can cover a wide range of topics, but we recommend looking for training and courses that include:

  • Legal guidance on discrimination
  • Practical approaches to spotting and addressing unwanted behaviours
  • Bullying and harassment
  • Communication models and practices around EDI
  • Empathy and active listening
  • Identifying the differences between banter, inappropriate behaviour and bullying.

3. Provide clear paths and mechanisms for reporting discrimination

Do people in your organisation know what to do if they experience workplace discrimination? More importantly, do they feel safe making a discrimination claim without fear of retribution from anyone in the organisation? 

ADP’s 2020 report found that only a third (32.67%) of workers feel comfortable enough to raise discrimination claims because of being treated unfairly at work due to their protected characteristics.

Your organisation must make it clear that employees across all levels can report discrimination and any unwanted behaviour to the proper people or departments. This should be communicated during the employee onboarding process, during regular updates to your equality policy and in regular workplace discrimination training. 

4. Conduct regular catch-ups with individual employees

It’s every employer’s responsibility to create a working environment where employees can freely discuss their thoughts about EDI in the workplace. 

It’s one thing to have rules and policies in place, but are your managers and supervisors engaging people in organic discussions about workplace discrimination? Are teams aware that they can always report unwanted behaviours whenever they experience them?

You can build this culture by incorporating EDI topics into your leaders’ one-on-one discussions with your staff members. 

Find more insights on ethical practices in the workplace by going through the Cloudbooking blog. If you need a cloud-based solution to enable collaboration and communication between remote or hybrid teams, get in touch with the Cloudbooking team. Cloudbooking’s desk and meeting room booking solutions are packed with features to help managers and employees shift to new ways of work. Contact our team today to schedule an obligation-free demo.

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