Discrimination in the workplace
Roxane Gervais, Health & Safety Laboratory, UK
- 1 Introduction
- 2 What is discrimination
- 3 Knowledge of rights
- 4 Cost to the organisation
- 5 Preventing discrimination at work
- 6 References
- 7 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
Since 1976, the European Council has promoted the principle of equal treatment for men and women in respect to working conditions (European Council, 1976). This principle was amended to include an EU definition of discrimination related to gender. The EU definition is two-fold, focusing on both:"direct discrimination: where one person is treated less favourably on grounds of sex than another is, has been or would be treated in a comparable situation', and on indirect discrimination: where an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice would put persons of one sex at a particular disadvantage compared with persons of the other sex, unless that provision, criterion or practice is objectively justified by a legitimate aim, and the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary"(European Council, 2002). The Directive covering discrimination continues to be updated to cover all of its aspects (European Council, 2006).
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-27 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. In general, levels of discrimination are perceived to be on the increase due to the present economic crisis. Individual perceptions may help to drive such actions. The results of a survey, across all 27 EU Member States, found that a candidate's ability to do a job was not the only factor believed to influences their success in gaining that position. Candidates may be disadvantaged by their appearance: including, the way they dress and their age (mentioned by 48% of respondents), followed by skin colour or ethnic origin (38%), having a disability (37%), and their general physical appearance (36%).
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. In 2005, in the United Kingdom, a report by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) showed that 50% of pregnant women did not receive a risk assessment at work and an estimated 30,000 women lose their jobs each year due to their pregnancy, with only 3% of those experiencing a problem lodging a claim at an employment tribunal. Further, women in the early stages of their career (such as, those with less than one year's service) are particularly vulnerable to losing their jobs. The EOC study demonstrated that 16% of women who became pregnant during their first year of their employment were either: dismissed, made redundant, or treated so badly that they resigned. This percentage is much higher than for those with longer service (6%) who lost their jobs due to pregnancy.
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 (Employers Forum on Age (EFA), 2006).
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. In the UK, individuals of African and Caribbean origin are subjected still to discriminatory hiring practices; which result in them experiencing high unemployment rates and being concentrated in low-skilled, low-paid jobs. Results from the 2005 Citizenship Survey demonstrated that individual from these groups in the UK were more likely than others to have been refused or denied a job in the past five years. In the US, black women also tend to experience pay discrimination and receive less remuneration than white colleagues, especially their white male colleagues.
Throughout Europe, the Roma people experience high unemployment rates (ranging from 50 to 90%) often associated with extreme poverty. This group is the largest ethnic minority group in Europe, totalling about 10 million people. They are part of the increasing proportion of migrant workers across Europe, which at present stands at 10%. Due to their 'status' they are limited in their choice of employment and access to the labour market. 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. An assessment of 2005 EU Labour Force Survey data (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Greece, Hungary, Luxemburg, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and United Kingdom) show that only 42% of highly educated working migrant women are employed in high-skill occupations, with a significant percentage (26%) being employed in low-skill sectors. These sectors include the cleaning industry, which employs a high proportion of workers from ethnic minorities and migrant workers (Krause et al., 2010). Furthermore, the latter group 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 (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 2006). Eurostat data (2005) have shown that migrant workers usually have worse employment rates than nationals, with migrant women who are non EU-25 citizens likely to have up to 1.5 to 3 times higher unemployment rates compared with migrant men in Greece, Finland and Portugal. Difficulties in gaining and keeping employment could significantly affect the mental health of migrant and refugee women.
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, transsexual and transgender (LGBT) 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 LGBT 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'. Furthermore, transgender individuals (irrespective of their sexual orientation, whether that be heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual) tend to experience transphobia and discrimination; because of their gender identity and its expression, rather than their sexual orientation. However, effective employment equality legislation tends to empower LGBT persons to complain formally, if they experience such forms of discrimination. It is difficult to assess the true impact of discrimination based on sexual orientation, as few studies have researched the experiences of lesbian/bisexual women.
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 40% of those who consider themselves as having a disability (who total 16% of the working age population) are employed, this rate increases to 64.2% for those who do not consider themselves to have a disability. 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.
In 2009, on average across the EU, one per cent of individuals felt that they were discriminated against because of their religion or belief. In the UK, one per cent of respondents to the 2007–2008 Citizenship Survey listed religion as a reason for being refused a job, and approximately, 3% noted religion as a reason for being turned down for a promotion. Additionally the survey found, ethnic minority individuals who had been refused a job were more likely than White respondents to mention religion as a reason (5% compared with 1%).
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 17% less than men. This has repercussions for women, because it may lead to more women than men living in poverty as they get older. Single mothers and women over the age of 65 are even more likely to encounter pay discrimination. The likelihood of poverty continues to increase as women get older, and by the age of 75 women are 1.7 times more likely than the general population to live in poverty. In addition to poverty, another outcome is the decrease in output per capita within the economy due to wage discrimination, as the number of women in the labour market decreases when they receive less pay.
Regarding other groups, research assessing conditions in France, Germany and England shows that Muslims earn on average almost 25% less than Caucasian groups, who may not be perceived as Muslims, while in Brazil in South America, the earnings of mixed-race black people were half those of Hispanics. Overall, migrant groups to the EU and across the EU tend to receive lower wages than non-migrant groups.
Knowledge of rights
In the EU there is a need for more information on how to address discrimination, as only one-third of Europeans know their rights should they experience discrimination or harassment. These knowledge levels have not increased since 2008. This lack of knowledge also applies to minority groups. In addition, individuals who have actually experienced discrimination lack specific information on their rights; with only 35% of those experiencing discrimination on single grounds and 37% of those experiencing it on multiple grounds saying that they know their rights.
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 LGBT 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. 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 EU has implemented various directives to stop discrimination, these include: Council Directive 2000/43/EC on the grounds of race or ethnic origin; Council Directive 2000/78/EC which focuses on religion or belief, disability, age, gender and sexual orientation; and equal pay covered under Council Directive 75/117/EEC. Eurofound (2009a) provides an overview of the various legislative processes that prohibit discrimination based on personal and work characteristics. 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 transgender (LGBT) 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 LGBT 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. For example in the UK, the Health and Safety Executive, promotes a Single Equality Scheme to eliminate discrimination.
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.
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Links for further reading
Advicenow, ‘Dealing with discrimination at work – how to use the grievance procedure’. Available at http://www.advicenow.org.uk/advicenow-guides/work/dealing-with-discrimination-at-work/
Directgov, Discrimination at work. Available at: http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Employment/ResolvingWorkplaceDisputes/DiscriminationAtWork/index.htm
Safeworkers, Discrimination at Work. Available at: http://www.safeworkers.co.uk/DiscriminationWork.html
EC – European Commission, Diversity in the EU. Sexual Orientation. Available at http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/fdad/cms/stopdiscrimination/diversity_in_the_eu/diversity_you/Sexual_Orientation.html?langid=en
EC – European Commission, Tackling discrimination at work. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=158&langId=en
EC – European Commission, Tackling Multiple Discrimination. Practices, policies and laws. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/fdad/cms/stopdiscrimination/downloads/Tackling_Multi_Dis_pdf/235_multdis_en.pdf
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Workforce diversity and risk assessment: Ensuring everyone is covered, 2009. Available at: http://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/reports/TE7809894ENC/view.
‘Shadow report: Cyprus 2006’, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies, Nicosia, 2006. Available at: www.medinstgenderstudies.org.
Babson College (2008). Current state of businesses owned by women of color, Released: 5/9/2008 10:50 AM EDT, Retrieved 8 April 2011, from: http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/540601/
Employers Forum on Age, Defining Ageism, 2006. Available at: http://www.efa.org.uk/data/files/publications/511/EFA-BandQ-Defining-Ageism.pdf
EOC – Equal Opportunities Commission, Greater expectations: final report of the EOC’s investigation into discrimination against new and expectant mothers in the workplace, 2005, Manchester: EOC.
Krause, N., Rugulies, R., Maslach, C., ‘Effort-Reward imbalance at work and self-rated health of Las Vegas hotel room cleaners’, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Vol. 53, 2010, pp. 372-386.
The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, 32002L0073. Directive 2002/73/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 September 2002 amending Council Directive 76/207/EEC on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women as regards access to employment, vocational training and promotion, and working conditions (Text with EEA relevance), Official Journal L 269, 05/10/2002 P. 0015 - 0020, Retrieved 25 March 2011, from: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:32002L0073:EN:HTML