51 per cent of workers say they faced some type of workplace discrimination once or more in the past 12 months

In a perfect world, there would be no discrimination in the workplace, and everyone would feel comfortable and accepted every day when they go to work. But it seems we are a long way off this goal, with over half (51%) of European workers reporting that they faced workplace discrimination once or more in the past 12 months. Also of concern is the fact that 1 in 6 people feel that they are discriminated against “often”, or “all of the time”. Considering this, it should come as no surprise that one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is to “reduce inequality within and among countries” - Goal 10 of 17. However, as our research confirms, we have a lot of work to do before this is achieved.  

The EU’s Amsterdam Treaty states that it is illegal to discriminate in the workplace based on the following characteristics: 

  • age 
  • disability 
  • racial or ethnic origin 
  • religion and belief 
  • sex 
  • sexual orientation

Age is the most reported reason for workplace discrimination

In the Michael Page Sustainability Insights survey of 4,755 workers and jobseekers across Continental Europe, conducted between May and June 2022, age was highlighted as the most common cause of discrimination. In the survey, over a third (34%) of the respondents said they had been discriminated against at least once in the past year due to their age. This was followed by gender (23%) and cultural background (22%). 

Suffering from discrimination in the workplace can result in people feeling unsafe – either physically or emotionally, excluded, and disadvantaged. It can also lead to broader cultural issues in the workplace, causing dissatisfaction and unhappiness across teams. The results of our Sustainability Insights research are another reminder for Human Resources and Talent Development Managers to be aware of, potentially taking action to resolve or guard against workplace discrimination. 

While the unacceptably high levels of discrimination can seem overwhelming, there are actions we can all take to help improve conditions in the workplace. The first step is becoming aware of how discrimination may be hiding in your company’s policies and procedures, and how employees may be trying to fit in to protect themselves. 

Direct discrimination: What does it mean? 

The most obvious form of discrimination in the workplace is direct discrimination. The Equality and Human Rights Commission defines direct discrimination as “what happens when someone is treated less favourably because of a protected characteristic.”  

We might see this as someone being excluded from a project because they are a woman or given a particular type of work because of their race or ethnic origin.  

The challenge of indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination is the legal term used to describe policies, practices or procedures that appear to treat everyone equally but that, in practice, actually discriminate against a particular group of people.  

This might look like: 

  • Requiring all employees to be available to work Saturdays – which discriminates against those who practise Judaism because Saturday – the Sabbath – is a day of rest. 
  • Requiring all employees to work full-time – which may discriminate against parents who may have family responsibilities that need consideration. 
  • Requiring all employees to wear a strict uniform – which might discriminate against those who wear head scarves. 
  • Requiring all employees to stand during their shift – which discriminates against those who may have an injury or disability that requires extra physical support.  

Even organisations that have diversity and inclusion initiatives may have policies in place that indirectly discriminate against some of their employees. This may be because they have had the policies in place for a long time and they are due to be revised, or because when they were made, those making the decisions were not aware of how their policies may harm some of their employees.  

Whatever the reason, these policies can result in employees being discriminated against, so it’s important to be aware of them, to examine your organisation’s current practices to ensure they don’t exclude or discriminate against anyone and regularly update them as part of an ongoing, constantly evolving process. 

Not only can this help people to feel less excluded, but having truly inclusive policies can also foster a greater company culture for all, providing fresh perspectives and cultural learnings, and boosting productivity as your personnel become happier and more relaxed. Deloitte reports that teams with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to report that they are high performing, 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively. Also, it reported that a 10% improvement in the perception of inclusion increases work attendance by almost 1 day a year per employee.

The organisational cost of discrimination

Gender discrimination rises with seniority

Although occurrences of direct or indirect discrimination can sometimes appear as isolated incidents or, perhaps due to a lack of reporting, not particularly frequent, the effects can have a real impact on organisations. Overall, 23% of our respondents say they have been affected by gender discrimination. However, when breaking down the data by gender, 38% of women say the same, compared to 12% of men. In addition, as seniority increases, so does the prevalence of gender discrimination, with 31% of C-suite employees experiencing it, compared to 21% of non-managerial level workers. 

The true cost of such experiences can be seen in the latest Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Company, which shows that women in leadership positions in the U.S. are “more than 1.5 times as likely as men at their level to have left a previous job because they wanted to work for a company that was more committed to DEI” (diversity, equity and inclusion).  

Adding to those statistics, 41% of respondents aged over fifty say they have experienced age-based workplace discrimination in the past 12 months. Translated simply, this means that 4 out of 10 workers aged fifty or above could be looking to leave your organisation and, consequently, take all their skills and institutional knowledge with them.  

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