By Bethany Silverman

Emphasis on creating a positive workplace culture has been increasing in recent years. A good workplace culture means your employees are happy and feel comfortable at work, part of which means you need to ensure that the workplace is free of harassment and discrimination.

Workplace discrimination can have a negative effect on culture and employee satisfaction. Employers can be held legally responsible for acts of discrimination and sexual harassment which occur at work or are connected to the workplace.

Employers have an obligation to take reasonable and proportionate steps to eliminate discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. This means that employers are obliged to prevent discrimination from occurring in the first place, rather than taking reactive steps when a complaint has been made. As such, employers need to understand how to identify potential problems, and have an action plan or policy in place in relation to discrimination.

Knowing what discrimination is:

Understanding what discrimination is, and the different types of discrimination that exist are the first steps in properly managing and preventing workplace discrimination. Discrimination can be direct or indirect, meaning it is not always obvious and can occur in many different forms.

  • Direct discrimination: occurs when a person treats or proposes to treat someone unfavourably because of a personal characteristic protected by the law. An example of this may be refusing to employ someone based on their age because you think they are too old to learn new skills.
  • Indirect discrimination: occurs when an unreasonable condition is imposed that disadvantages a person with a personal characteristic protected by law. This may be when a workplace policy, practice or behavior appears to treat all employees the same, however it may disadvantage some because of a personal characteristic. For example, a requirement that all employees work a 12-hour shift may disadvantage some employees with caring responsibilities. If the requirement is not reasonable, it may amount to indirect discrimination.

When does discrimination occur?

Workplace discrimination occurs when an employer, either directly or indirectly, treats a person less favourably because of a protected characteristic or attribute. These include race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family or carer’s responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin.

Who is protected?

A person does not have to work for an employer for the minimum employment period to be protected from discrimination. In fact, discrimination can affect people who are not yet employees of the business; and extends to people who may have applied for a role within your organization. Discrimination can affect:

  • someone applying for a job as an employee;
  • to a new employee who hasn’t started work yet; and
  • to an employee at any time during their employment.

How can employers prevent workplace discrimination?

Having detailed and strong anti-discrimination policies, such as an equal opportunity policy, is important in setting out what is and is not acceptable workplace behavior. This helps to reduce confusion about discrimination, and can help the business to build a safe, productive and respectful workplace environment.

Is just having the policy enough?

Whilst having an anti-discrimination or equal opportunity policy in place is useful, you should also ensure that all employees understand the policy and how it operates.

You should ensure that workplace training on the policy is conducted, and that this training forms a part of induction processes when onboarding new staff. Training should include educating staff on their rights and responsibilities and provide information on how to identify and respond to discrimination in the workplace. It should also involve educating managers and supervisors on discrimination in the workplace and how to prevent and manage these issues.

In addition to this, the business should have a process for resolving workplace grievances and workplace complaints. In developing a complaints procedure, you should consider the size, structure and resources available in your business. You may consider having a process that involves both formal and informal mechanisms to resolve complaints.

As an employer, you should be able to show that you have taken all reasonable steps to prevent workplace discrimination, therefore, just having a policy will not be enough.

Is there anything else you should be aware of?

In addition to dealing with complaints of discrimination in a timely and effective manner, another thing to be mindful of is the risk of victimisation. Victimisation refers to subjecting a person to a disadvantage because they have made a complaint of discrimination or provided information in connection with a complaint. Employers should ensure that their workplace discrimination policy refers to, and provides mechanisms to address discrimination.

Quick tips:

There are simple processes you can follow to prevent and help to address discrimination in the workplace. These include:

  • educating your employees about discrimination;
  • responding quickly and effectively to and complaints of inappropriate behavior;
  • deal with complaints r discrimination promptly and confidentially;
  • develop a workplace policy that prohibits discrimination;
  • train supervisors and managers on how to respond to discrimination in the workplace;
  • make sure the policy is properly enforced; and
  • review the policy to ensure that effectiveness is maintained.

Workplace discrimination is a serious and complex issue. If you have any queries, please reach out to the HR Assured Telephone Advisory Service.

Bethany Silverman is a qualified Workplace Relations Consultant at HR Assured. She regularly engages businesses in matters of compliance and best practice. She has a particular interest in the performance management process.