Why does discrimination exist at work, and what can we do about it?

It’s natural – positive even – for people to have differences; unique minds form original, passionate ideas. But problems arise when these differences lead to people mistreating others and not supporting their needs.

This behaviour is not just a bad personality trait. It damages workplace productivity and, in many circumstances, it’s against the law.

Businesses that promote equality and tackle challenging behaviour help us all move towards a more empathetic, accepting society. Businesses that respect differing attitudes, beliefs, and personalities reap the benefits of a diverse workforce – such as bringing new ideas to the table and cultivating an accepting, positive culture.

So why does discrimination still exist in workplaces?

In many cases, people unintentionally discriminate.

It could be due to a lack of awareness, dated traditional views, or plain tactlessness.

For example:

  • Someone trivialising a colleague’s sexuality without realising their ‘jokes’ are offensive and inappropriate.
  • Staff undermining someone’s religion by disregarding decisions they make based on their beliefs.
  • A recruiter disregarding a younger person’s CV because they think they aren’t mature enough.

Regardless of intention, these are all examples of discrimination.

The fact remains that intolerant views are not inborn; they are learned. Once xenophobic ideas set in, they are difficult to break in adulthood. That’s why it’s so important to challenge discrimination and prevent negative attitudes spreading in the workplace.

When you fail to support people’s needs or prevent inappropriate or intolerant attitudes, you perpetuate discrimination – whether you intentionally ignored the situation or not.

You allow people to continue spreading these views, which they’ll pass on to their children; and to their friends, and their friend’s friends. And so the cycle of intolerance continues.

Many people need to be educated about equality and diversity.

Challenging deep-rooted behaviours is difficult – people are resistant to being told their line of thinking is wrong. But it’s part of your duty of care to prevent discrimination and make sure all employees feel safe while at work.

You need a solid understanding of what discrimination looks like in the workplace to face it head on.

Under the Equality Act 2010, it is illegal to allow the mistreatment of or not support people with any of the nine protected characteristics:

  1. Age – e.g. not offering promotions or opportunities to younger staff when they have the same experience and skills as older colleagues.
  2. Disability – e.g. refusing to provide facilities for people with mobility issues, flexibility for people with physical or mental health issues, or support for people with learning disabilities/difficulties, like autism or dyslexia.
  3. Gender reassignment – e.g. failure to allow reasonable time off for Trans people undergoing a sex change to attend appointments.
  4. Marriage or civil partnership – e.g. not providing married people the same access to benefits or promotional opportunities as single people.
  5. Pregnancy, maternity, or paternity – e.g. not providing facilities or flexibility to pregnant women or new mothers and fathers.
  6. Race – e.g. allowing staff to make racist comments to colleagues.
  7. Religion or belief – e.g. not providing flexibility for religious holidays or prayer, or respecting people’s belief/lack of belief.
  8. Sex – e.g. failing to prevent staff from making sexist comments, or paying different salaries to men and women for the same role, skills, and experience.
  9. Sexual orientation – e.g. allowing employees to belittle or bully a staff member because they are gay.

What can businesses do to prevent discrimination?

It’s easy for businesses to prevent discrimination now more than ever. You can make all sorts of low-cost adjustments, raise awareness, and use technology to fulfil the requirements of the Equality Act and enable people to work comfortably. For example, you could:

Put in place policies

Implement a grievance policy and an equality and diversity policy, and ensure everyone familiarises themselves with these.

Employment policies demonstrate the business’ no-tolerance approach and their commitment to preventing and tackling discrimination. They should cover disciplinary procedures, expectations for everyone, and how to report any issues.

Train management and staff

Training in equality and diversity is widely accessible and important for raising awareness about tolerance. It’s not typically covered in traditional educational settings, so what constitutes discrimination may be missing from some people’s knowledge.

Training helps management and staff understand and respect people’s different backgrounds, and how these differences are reflected in their beliefs and values. This understanding enables them to effectively work around and support others.

Implement supportive changes

This is tricky because there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. You need to look at each situation on an individual basis. You could:

  • Allow flexible working hours

This allows Trans people to attend appointments, allows people with mental health issues to receive therapy or work more comfortably, and supports the chaotic schedule of new parents.

  • Have an open-door policy

Allow people to confidentially discuss issues in relation to discrimination at work with you. Building a culture of trust like this prevents people from feeling alone in facing their problems and discourages intolerant behaviour in the first place.

  • Support Neurodiverse people

People with autism or dyslexia process information differently (which in many cases is a real benefit and fosters creativity). You should make adjustments to harness their strengths and help them work in a comfortable way.

For people with autism, an individual approach is so important. As Dr. Stephen Shore said, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” However, it’s useful to provide them with written, concise instructions, and be careful when using figurative speech or idioms, as this can be confusing for some.

Keep their work routine consistent, as disrupting it is upsetting for some. Minimise any sensory distractions such as bright strip lights or noises where you can. Also, allowing a person with autism to work remotely or in a private work space can be a good way to accommodate their needs.

Ask people directly

People know what works best for them, so seek direct input. They may come up with ideas you would have never thought of on your own. This also builds a relationship of trust and appreciation between you and staff; it demonstrates that you’re focused on supporting their needs and combatting discrimination in the workplace.

Liz Burton is a content author at High Speed Training: a UK-based online learning provider that offer a vast range of training courses, including Equality and Diversity, Autism Awareness, Health and Wellbeing, and many more.

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