Discrimination in the workplace
Roxane Gervais, Health & Safety Laboratory, UK
- 1 Introduction
- 2 What is discrimination
- 3 Cost to the organisation
- 4 Preventing discrimination at work
- 5 References
- 6 Links for further reading
Discrimination involves less favourable treatment of one person than another. This may be due, for example, to the other person's age, sex, religion or disability; and may involve more than one characteristic, which may, in turn, lead to multiple discrimination. There are European Union (EU) laws to protect people from differential treatment within the working environment. However, changes promoted at the macro level also need to be accepted at the micro level (i.e. both within organisations and among individuals). Training, leadership, communication about acceptable behaviour paired with a zero tolerance policy are all important in changing disruptive and stress-inducing practices in the workplace such as discrimination. Implementing such workplace practices will reduce, in turn, the organisational cost that this incurs.
What is discrimination
Discrimination occurs when one person is treated less favourably than another. Although this can happen both within and outside work, this article will centre on the work environment. There are various characteristics that influence discrimination, and include:
- Sexual orientation
The EU definition on discrimination is two-fold, focusing on both:
- direct discrimination: when one person is treated less favourably than another is, has been, or would be treated in a comparable situation on any of the grounds mentioned in various legal provisions; and on
- indirect discrimination: when an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice would put persons having a particular protected characteristic (e.g. their religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation) at a disadvantage compared with others.
Although discrimination may happen for only one reason (such as for age or race), there are situations when it may be based on more than one characteristic; and so this may give rise to multiple discrimination. For example, a woman who is both deaf and a lesbian, may be discriminated against because of her sexual orientation, her disability and her sex. Multiple discrimination is more likely to be found in the workplace, and it is important to acknowledge these occurrences and to find ways to eliminate them in order to promote a healthy work environment. Discrimination may facilitate acts of harassment, as well as violence due to its 'unfair' nature.
Within the respective EU Member States, there is evidence that unfair courses of action exist within societies and organisations. These can consist of discrimination due to: ethnic origin, age, and disability. The results of a survey (2019), across all EU Member States, show that 17% of respondents say that they personally felt discriminated against in the last 12 months. This is a decrease in comparison with 2015 (21%). Respondents were also asked about their views on equal opportunities in the labour market. When asked to consider a situation where a company has a choice between two job candidates with equal skills and qualifications 48% believes that candidates may be disadvantaged by their appearance (mentioned by 48% of respondents), followed by age (too young or too old) (47%), having a disability (41%), and their general physical appearance (41%).
The European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) includes data on whether or not respondents believe they have experienced discrimination in the past year on seven different grounds: gender, age, sexual orientation, nationality, race, ethnic background or colour; religion and disability. Overall, 7% of employees reported feeling discriminated against on at least one of these seven grounds in the past year. Discrimination was reported more often by women than by men (8% and 6% respectively).
Sex, inclusive of gender, was one of the first areas to be covered by legislation. The legislation has been adjusted as the structure of the workforce has changed; for example, more women are/have been entering the workforce, and legislation now makes special reference to pregnant women, as women who have just had a baby or are pregnant may experience discrimination in the workplace. A study from the Danish Institute of Human Rights on discrimination against parents in the workplace, shows that 45 % of women and 23 % of men who took parental leave experienced discrimination after taking the leave. This study also showed that 12 % of women and 21 % of men did not take as much parental leave as they would have liked. Some of the highlighted gaps include the difficulty for victims to prove the link between pregnancy and discrimination, fear of negative treatment and a general lack of awareness on all sides.
As aforementioned, more women are entering the labour force. Women continue to bear the primary responsibility of the care of dependents (childcare and care of the elderly) and domestic duties; and this can be a substantial challenge for women who work. Many of these women are increasingly experiencing another form of discrimination: family responsibility discrimination (FRD). FRD includes differential treatment, differential impact, harassment, failure to promote, retaliation and gender stereotyping of individuals who have care-giving duties within their families . Men who care for children and the elderly also tend to be discriminated against in this way. This is not EU-specific, and research from the United States has shown perceived FRD to be related to lower job satisfaction, lower organisational attachment, higher turnover intentions, higher work-family conflict and lower use of benefits (such as, flexible working, subsidised child care and leave of absence .
The ageing of populations influences the composition of those available for work, with an increasing proportion of older workers needing to or wanting to work longer. This group of workers may feel discriminated against because of their age, but they are not the only ones to experience discrimination. Younger people are also subject to the pressures of the work environment, and may even be more susceptible to unfair treatment than their older colleagues.
Age discrimination, within the working environment, cuts across six essential elements (promotion, training, development, development appraisals, wage increases and change processes); with older workers less likely to be considered for these courses of action that facilitate overall employee development. It may also hinder interpersonal relations and reduces the sense of competence; thereby reducing integration into a good work environment. Furunes and Mykletun (2010) examining age discrimination (in Norway, Sweden and Finland) observed that men were more likely to be discriminated against due to their age, than were women. They also highlighted the fact that discrimination due to age could lead to lower levels of self-efficacy, work ability, work motivation, organisational commitment, job and life satisfaction, social climate and support from co-workers and superiors; as well as higher levels of stress and sickness absences.
Individuals have long been discriminated against because of their race, and despite the relevant legislation to eliminate such practices this continues to occur. Throughout Europe, the Roma people experience high unemployment rates often associated with extreme poverty. A survey from 2016 found that only one in four Roma aged 16 years or over was employed or self-employed (25 %). Roma women reported much lower employment rates than Roma men (16 % compared with 34 %). This group is the largest ethnic minority group in Europe. Out of an estimated total of 10 to12 million Roma in Europe as a whole, some 6 million live in the European Union (EU), most of whom are citizens of an EU Member State. Due to their 'status' migrant workers are often limited in their choice of employment and access to the labour market. In the EU, more than one fifth (20.3 %) of employees born outside the EU were temporary employees in 2020, compared with 11.8 % for native-born employees and 13.8 % for employees born in a different EU Member State.
Governments in some EU countries use work permits to restrict foreigners to specific jobs, while in other countries migrants may be confined to a specific region of the country. When migrants do find work it is usually at a lower status than in their home country. Data show that in the EU, foreign citizens were more likely than nationals to be over-qualified: the over-qualification rate in 2020 for nationals was 20.8 % compared with 32.3 % for citizens of other EU Member States and 41.4 % for non-EU citizens. An analysis of Eurofound based on the Sixth European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS 2015) found that workers with a foreign background tend to be overrepresented in sectors dominated by lower-skilled employment, including commerce and hospitality and transport. Furthermore, migrant workers may work without adequately understanding the instructions of the trainer or employer, which may exacerbate the bad and precarious working conditions; resulting in low health and safety levels and conditions of their jobs .
Migrant women workers often complain of marginalisation, exploitation, racism, discrimination, sexual harassment, precarious employment, contract violations, lack of proper hygiene and nutrition, lack of rest, and longer hours of work without compensation. Ethnicity and race are also factors in business discrimination, despite the importance to economies of ethnic groups. One study, conducted by the Centre for Women's Business Research in partnership with Babson College in the US, showed that non-Caucasian women (e.g. women who are African-American, Asian, Latina and other ethnicities) were starting businesses at rates three to five times higher than other businesses. Nevertheless, once their businesses were established their growth lagged behind that of other firms. More specifically, the study showed the misconceptions about business capacity that arise due to an individual’s gender (being a woman) and race, may lead to such problems as less access to capital for business growth. This then creates the challenge of balancing the expectations and demands of both running a business and being part of a diverse culture. Overall this situation discourages talented non-Caucasian women from going into business.
There is a large difference across the EU Member States in how individuals who consider themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) are perceived. For example, acceptance rates of same-sex marriage ranging from 82% in the Netherlands to 11% in Romania (European Union for Fundamental Rights). Members of the LGBTI groups are mainly abused through verbal aggression (this tends to occur within public areas, with the perpetrators typically consisting of young men in groups), with the potential of the abuse to increase to assaults that are more physical. This may be one of the reasons why LGBT individuals are reluctant to disclose their sexual orientation, as they may experience homophobia and discrimination at work in various ways: including, direct discrimination, harassment, bullying, ridicule and being socially 'frozen-out'. An EU-OSHA report (2020) brings together the results of a literature review investigating how specific characteristics of the workforce (diversity) are associated with a greater likelihood of being in a job with higher exposure to poor working conditions, OSH risks and health-related issues, with a specific focus on musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). The study found that LGBTI workers are likely to experience more stress than non-LGBTI workers as a consequence of being discriminated against. The report cites data from the second EU LGBTI survey (FRA (European Agency for Fundamental Rights), 2020), showing that incidents of discrimination are still widespread in workplaces. 10 % of LGBTI workers reported having experienced discrimination when looking for a job and 21 % reported discrimination at work. Transgender and intersex workers were the two groups reporting the most acute discrimination experiences.
Within the working population, in terms of getting a job, there is a large disparity between those who suffer from a disability and those who do not. Only 50.6% of persons with disabilities are in employment (48.3% of women and 53.3% of men), compared to 74.8% for persons without disabilities. Furthermore, the nature of the disability affects employability. Within Europe a person aged between 16 and 64 with any level of disability has a 66% chance of finding a job, but this decreases to 47% for those with a moderate disability and further decreases to 25% for those with a severe disability. These figures may be higher if invisible disabilities, such as mental ill health are included. In addition, women with disabilities are discriminated against more than men with disabilities.
The Eurobarometer on discrimination states that opinions in Europe are divided over whether discrimination on the basis of religion is widespread in their country. 47% say it is common and 48% say it is rare. The German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency reports that in 2020, five per cent of consultation requests to the Agency concerned the characteristic of religion and two percent of enquiries concerned the belief system. In religious based discrimination, the visibility of a person's religious beliefs plays an important role. For instance, Muslim women who wear headscarves are particularly discriminated against when looking for jobs.
Pay – an outcome of personal discrimination
Pay discrimination can occur based on age, race, disability or gender. It is especially significant for women, who earn on average 13% less than men. In 2020, a larger gender pay gap was recorded in the private sector than in the public sector in most EU countries. This may be due to the fact that in most countries, public sector pay is determined by transparent pay scales that apply equally to men and women. Gender pay gaps are generally much smaller among new entrants to the labour market and widen with age. This has repercussions for women, because it may lead to more women than men living in poverty as they get older. 18% of women over 65 had an income below the relative poverty threshold in 2018 compared to 13.4% of men.
Cost to the organisation
It is difficult to get an accurate cost to organisations of discrimination, because most abusive events are generally under-reported in both organisations and within society as a whole; especially, when such incidents involve LGBTI individuals. Despite this lack of specific information, it can be assumed that both the direct (such as, compensation) and indirect costs (such as, lower productivity and the negative effects on the company’s reputation when such claims are made) of discrimination to an organisation are high.
Indirect costs through poorer employee well-being
The indirect costs are high; as in general, discrimination has adverse effects on individuals and this can have a ‘knock on’ effect to the health, productivity and resiliency of the organisation. Exposure to discrimination has been linked with higher levels of blood pressure, depression and anxiety, and lower psychological well-being, overall well-being and self-esteem. In one study, perceived racism and ethnic discrimination were found to be (negatively) associated with the psychological well-being and general health of immigrants in Finland. Women and Black immigrants have been reported to face the worst discrimination, and often describe themselves as suffering from work-related stress and ill health as a result. The EU-OSHA report (Workforce diversity and musculoskeletal disorders, 2020) shows that women workers who report being subject to discrimination or sexual harassment at work are on average less likely to report very good health than women workers who do not report being exposed to such psychosocial risk. These physical and mental problems will impact negatively on the organisation through increased levels of absenteeism, lower performance and organisational commitment, and higher job turnover, with ensuing costs over the short and long-term.
Preventing discrimination at work
The development and updating of legislation upholds the selection and promotion of individuals in jobs based on their ability to do the work involved. Such methods facilitate equality and non-discriminatory practices. These legal policies work to remove such occurrences.
The non-discrimination principles are integrated in the Treaty on the European Union and laid down in the Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union.
The EU has implemented various directives to stop discrimination, these include:
- Directive 2000/43/EC implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin
- Directive 2000/78/EC establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation
- Directive 2006/54/EC on the implementation of the principle of equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women in matters of employment and occupation.
In 2007, the European Union established the Agency for Fundamental Rights, to promote fundamental rights and to support the EU institutions and Member States in raising the level of protection for everyone in the European Union.
Although EU Member States implement appropriate legislation and continue to promote good practices, discrimination continues to exist within the workplace. Discrimination may occur due to lack of knowledge. If an individual accepts unfounded perceptions and attitudes concerning race, age, or sex, then this may increase how they treat others different from themselves. Increasing knowledge within an organisation is one way in which employers can manage and prevent discrimination. This will allow individuals to understand the cultures and practices of others. Similarly, it is important to empower vulnerable groups and individuals: such as, people with disabilities and migrant women.
At the governmental level, EU Member States are encouraged to:
- develop, or strengthen, existing awareness-raising and training initiatives;
- specifically target public officials at all levels of government on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and and intersex (LGBTI) topics, and the principles and obligations regarding equal treatment and non-discrimination contained in national legislation, EU law and international human rights instruments (including case-law of the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights);
- involve LGBTI organisations in the planning and implementation of such actions;
- conduct ‘diversity audits’;
- develop equal treatment and diversity policies for all grounds of discrimination in their public administration at all levels; and
- provide a ‘best practice’ example to other employers.
Governments, organisations and policy groups, therefore, need to keep discrimination in the workplace high on their agendas. To assist with this focus there is a need for more research, especially regarding the following:
- statistical data regarding sexual orientation;
- multiple discrimination, particularly in the context of women from different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds;
- information on how and why workers interpret racial discrimination;
- and the conducting of more longitudinal studies.
Leadership is an essential element in changing behaviours within organisations. If employees see senior management engaging in non-discriminatory practices and accept that discriminatory behaviours are not tolerated within the organisation, then such behaviours will not occur. It is interesting to note that the leadership dimensions that enhance OSH coincide with those that promote effective diversity management. Organisations can take positive actions by promoting diversity in the workplace. Diversity charters encourage organisations to develop and implement diversity and inclusion policies. By signing a charter, the organisation voluntarily commits to promote diversity and equal opportunities in the workplace, regardless of, for example, age, disability, gender, race or ethnic origin, religion or sexual orientation. The EU Platform of Diversity Charters  brings together the initiatives from the Member States and shares experiences from the signatories.
The actions listed above should encourage a healthier organisation in which negative practices are reduced to a minimum, and which, if they do occur, are addressed swiftly and fairly.
- Eurofound. European Observatory of Working Life (EurWork). Indirect discrimination, 22 February 2019. Available at: 
- EC – European Commission, Tackling Multiple Discrimination. Practices, policies and laws, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 2007. Available at: 
- EU Commission. Discrimination in the European Union, 2019. Special Eurobarometer 493, October 2021. Available at: 
- EU-OSHA. Preventing musculoskeletal disorders in a diverse workforce: risk factors for women, migrants and LGBTI workers. Report, 2020. Available at: 
- EU Commission. 2019 Report on equality between women and men in the EU. Available at: 
- Dickson, C. E., 'Antecedents and consequences of perceived family responsibilities discrimination in the workplace', The Psychologist-Manager Journal, Vol. 11, 2008, pp. 113-114.
- Furunes, T., Mykletun, R. J., 'Age discrimination in the workplace: Validation of the Nordic Age Discrimination Scale (NADS)', Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, Vol. 51, 2010, pp. 23-30.
- European Parliament. Understanding EU action on Roma inclusion. Briefing, April, 2022. Available at: 
- Eurostat. Migrant integration statistics - employment conditions. Statistics explained, April 2021. Available at: 
- ILO – International Labour Office, Discrimination at Work in Europe, year of publishing. Available at: 
- Eurostat. Migrant integration statistics - over-qualification. Statistics explained, July 2021. Available at: 
- King, R., Zontini, E., ‘The role of gender in the South European immigration model’, Papers, 60, University of Sussex, 2000, pp. 35-52.
- UN. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 2006 . Available at: 
- FRA – European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Homophobia and Discrimination on Grounds of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the EU Member States. Part II: The Social Situation. Summary Report, March 2009. Available at: 
- European Parliament. Report on the implementation of Council Directive 2000/78/EC establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation in light of the UNCRPD. 3.2.2021 - 2020/2086(INI). Available at: 
- Jones, M. K., Latreille, P. L., Sloane, P. J., ‘Disability, Gender and the Labour Market’, Discussion Paper No 936, (November 2003), revised version published in Oxford Economic Papers, Vol. 58, No 3, 2006, pp. 407-449. Available at: 
- Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency. Religion/Beliefs. Available at: 
- Eurostat. Gender pay gap statistics. Statistics explained. Available at: 
- EU Commission. Commission Staff Working Document. Evaluation of the relevant provisions in the Directive 2006/54/EC implementing the Treaty principle on ‘equal pay for equal work or work of equal value’. SWD(2020) 51 final. Available at: 
- Clayton, S., Garcia, A., Crosby, F. J. 'Women in the workplace: Acknowledging difference in experience and policy', In Landrine, H., Russo, N. F. (Eds.), Handbook of diversity in feminist psychology, Springer Publishing Co., New York, NY, 2010, pp. 559-581.
- Jasinskaja-Lahti, I., Liebkind, K., Perhoniemi, R., 'Perceived discrimination and well-being: a victim study of different immigrant groups', Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 16, Issue 4, 2006, pp. 267-284.
- Smith, A., Wadsworth, E., Shaw, C., Stansfeld, S., Bhui, K., Dhillon, K., Ethnicity, Work Characteristics, Stress and Health, Prepared by Cardiff University and Queen Mary, University of London for the Health and Safety Executive, Norwich: HMSO, 2005. Available at: 
- Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union. Available at: 
- Directive 2000/43/EC implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin. Available at 
- Directive 2000/78/EC establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation. Available at: 
- Directive 2006/54/EC on the implementation of the principle of equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women in matters of employment and occupation. Available at: 
- FRA – European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2007, 
- Makkonen, T., Multiple, compound and intersectional discrimination: bringing the experiences of the most marginalized to the fore, Institute For Human Rights, Åbo Akademi University, April, 2002. Available at: 
- Moradi, B., DeBlaere, C., 'Women's experiences of sexist discrimination: Review of research and directions for centralizing race, ethnicity, and culture, In Landrine, H., Russo, N. F. (Eds.), Handbook of diversity in feminist psychology, Springer Publishing Co., New York, NY, 2010, pp. 173-210.
- Hirsh, E., Lyons, C. J., 'Perceiving discrimination on the job: Legal consciousness, workplace context, and the construction of race discrimination', Law & Society Review, Vol. 44, 2010, pp. 269-298.
- EU-OSHA. Diverse cultures at work: ensuring safety and health through leadership and participation, Report, 2013. Available at: 
Links for further reading
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at WorkPreventing musculoskeletal disorders in a diverse workforce: risk factors for women, migrants and LGBTI workers. Report, 2020. 
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Workforce diversity and risk assessment: Ensuring everyone is covered, 2009. 
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Diversity plan: How to bring comprehensible instructions to the workfloor? Casestudy, 2010. 
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Diverse cultures at work: ensuring safety and health through leadership and participation, Report, 2013 
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Women and the ageing workforce: implications for occupational safety and health - A research review. Information sheet, 2016. 
ILO – International Labour Organization. Q&As on business, discrimination and equality. 
EU Commission. Tackling discrimination. 
EU Commission. Directorate-General for Employment, social affairs and inclusion. Tackling discrimination at work. 
AGE Platform Europe 
Equinet. European Network of Equality Bodies 
FRA European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights 
ILO – International Labour Organization. How to promote disability inclusion in programmes to prevent, address and eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work