Sussex Business Times takes a closer look at the seemingly high levels of discrimination in the workplace, and explores the steps employees and businesses can take in order to prevent this occurrence 

Over the years, the working world has changed drastically and more and more people are now continuing to work instead of retiring. Women now make up almost half of the UK’s workforce and around one in ten of the UK working age population are from an ethnic minority, while only four primary school children are from an ethnic minority. Despite the fact that, as a nation we see ourselves as accepting, although there seems to be a fair amount of evidence against this; not only whilst arguments over immigration are still flying following on from the result of the EU referendum, but also because of the high levels of discrimination in the workplace.

Workplace discrimination has made up a large portion of our national news since the beginning of 2017. We were first made aware that gender discrimination was manifesting itself in dress codes across UK companies, one of which sent a London receptionist, Nicola Thorp, home without pay for not wearing heels (specifically heels that were between two and four inches high). This independent story gained traction, leading to hundreds of other women claiming similarly sexist dress codes detailing nail varnish shade and hair root colour, and discriminatory rules, such as being asked to wear shorter skirts and unbutton blouses. Women who face demands at work to wear high heels, make-up of revealing outfits require a new legal framework to stop such discrimination.

Two Commons’ committees have called for a review of current equality legislation after gathering evidence of sexist instructions given to hundreds of female employees, but not to their male colleagues. This comes following the treatment Nicola Thorp received after reporting for work in 2015 as a receptionist at the accounting giant PwC in flat shoes. She was subsequently sent home without pay after refusing to buy a pair of shoes with at least a two-inch heel, despite pointing out that men were not required to wear similar attire. Thorp launched a petition calling for a law to stop firms from requiring women to wear high heels at work, which attracted 152,420 signatures. As a consequence of her petition, the women and equalities committee and the petitions committee invited the public to send in other examples of discriminatory dress codes. This petition for change on this subject made it into parliament, where the ease with which Nicola’s employer could send her home for such arbitrary reasons was discussed and it was suggested that guilty employers should be required to pay compensation to every worker affected by discriminatory rues. Chair of the Petitions Committee, Helen Jones MP said: “The way that Nicola Thorp was treated by her employer is against the law, but that didn’t stop her being sent home without pay.”

The Equality Act 2010 clearly states that offering working conditions or rules that disadvantage one group of people more than another is unlawful discrimination, as is introducing measures that discriminate between workers. Having a particular, strict dress code rules for one gender and not another is therefore quite clearly unlawful. Why should a woman have to wear heels? Does it benefit her work practice? Does makeup make her more professional? Is showing more skin (rather than the generally accepted policy of showing less in the workplace) make the employee more respected? Helen Jones continued: “The Equality Act is clear in principle in setting out what constitutes discrimination in law,” the Committee said. “Nevertheless, discriminatory dress codes remain commonplace in some sectors of the economy.”

Of course, discrimination in the workplace doesn’t stop with female employees, and affects people of all kinds. Inside Out London added to the discussion by highlighting discrimination within the recruitment process. After hearing that job seekers with Muslim names were struggling to receive job acceptance, and that British Muslims are less proportionately represented in managerial and professional occupations than any other religious group, the BBC sent CVs, identical aside from the name, out to employers in London. The results showed that Adam was offered 12 interviews, whilst Mohammed was only offered four despite all qualifications, experience and wording being the same. Despite Muslims making up just over 1 million of London’s 8.2 million inhabitants, Muslim men are 76% less likely to be employed than their white Christian counterparts, according to research by the Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol.

Recruitment discrimination is of course, illegal, but it’s often more subtle than laws dictate. Phrases like ‘recent graduate’ or ‘highly experiences’ have replaced terms that suggest an age requirement or requirement for a particular number of years’ experience. In fact, there is a clause that encourages businesses to employ candidates who have ‘protected characteristics’ according to The Equality Act 2010, and these include age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

The Act states that employers can choose a candidate who has protected characteristics over one who doesn’t if they are both suitable for the job and the employer believes that people with that characteristic are underrepresented in the workforce or ‘suffers a disadvantage connected to that characteristic’. In addition to this, it further states that disabled persons can be treated more favourably if their non-disabled ‘counterpart’ meets the same job requirements. Although this is seen as a step forwards in the working world, it seems that this enforced equality is actually rather hypocritical – is it not also discrimination to favour those who have protected characteristics than those without?

As you can probably tell, this issue is a rather complicated one, and one employers must tackle case by case. Not only is it important for employers to protect staff and possible future employees from discrimination in the workplace, but also to protect themselves against making any discriminatory judgements, no matter how subtle as, after all, employers are held liable for any action of this kind.

There are many steps businesses can take in order to stay within the law and promote equality while preventing discrimination – having a policy in place so all employees (whether this is staff in managerial or non-managerial roles) clearly understand what is and what isn’t acceptable. ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) provides help and advice to employers and employees, including tips on how to prevent discrimination in the workplace and in the recruitment process in particular. Jill Coyne, Acas Senior Guidance Manager said: “Recruitment processes should always aim to be open and fair to all candidates. Those doing the recruiting should not discriminate based on personal information they may know about the candidate, such as their name, gender, age, etc.”

Here are their three main steps:

  1. Employers must be aware of the key areas of work, such as recruiting staff, where discrimination can be more likely to happen and how to avoid potential pitfalls.
  2. Introduce workplace rules for all members of staff. In other words, a policy should be in place, and in writing. It can also be helpful and is advised for the employer to plan how they will encourage equality and diversity and try to stop discrimination in the workplace. Employees have key parts to play in this.
  3. It is also important as to how the employer can measure if their policy and any supporting plan work in practice is working, and whether this might need to change.

Discrimination in the place of work will more often than not lead to unmotivated and unhappy members of staff, which can then contribute to damaged reputations, which is the very last thing any business owner/leader wants to face. Of course, there are general methods employers can take to ensure this isn’t the case. Encouraging greater awareness and understanding of different protected characteristics – alongside tackling discrimination – can help to reduce the chance of complaints, therefore killing two birds with one stone. Additionally, improving team spirit means an employee or groups of employees who are being discriminated against are less likely to be unhappy and less productive, which can have a negative impact on the whole workforce. If staff who have been discriminated against feel undervalued or forced out and leave, companies will often run up the costs of recruiting more employees and settling in new staff, while reputations are likely to be damaged. Also, having staff at all levels from a wide range of backgrounds and skills can help develop a working environment producing ideas and solutions that might not come from a smaller array of diverse groups. A diverse workforce can also help an organisation better understand and meet diverse customer expectations.

These are all steps businesses of all kinds, big and small, can take to ensure a happy and diverse workforce. So take note, say no to discrimination and reap the benefits!