On March 1, Zero Discrimination Day celebrates everyone’s right to live a full, productive life free from discrimination related to any personal attributes. This includes the right to freedom from discrimination in the workplace.

Workplace discrimination can cause a host of adverse outcomes for employees, managers, and those in the highest positions of organisational leadership – such as massive financial losses, court cases, and irreparable reputational damage.

Looking at things from the opposite perspective, a diverse and inclusive workplace helps build a culture of trust, high engagement and innovation that position your organisation for success and growth.

What is discrimination in the workplace?

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, unlawful workplace discrimination occurs when an employer takes ‘adverse action’ against an employee (or prospective employee) because of that person’s attributes.

Discrimination can occur at any stage of an employee’s involvement with your organisation, including:

  • Recruitment and onboarding – if you refuse to employ someone on discriminatory grounds or discriminate against someone in the terms and conditions of their employment offer.
  • During their employment – if you discriminate between one employee and others or alter a position to their detriment.
  • Exiting – if you dismiss an employee for discriminatory reason.

Employees can also discriminate against each other, or against a more senior staff member or manager.

Kinds of discrimination in the workplace

Workplace discrimination can be based on a huge range of characteristics, including:

  • Age – at one organisation I worked with, about half their staff were in their late 50s and 60s. The other half were young apprentices. The young workers thought the others were ‘old farts’ past their prime, while the older ones wanted to give those young whipper-snappers a good clip over the ears! This workplace had a huge problem with age discrimination (more about this below).
  • Sex – another workplace I dealt with had facilitated flexible working arrangements for single mothers but struggled when a single father requested the same arrangements.
  • Religion – for example, discriminating against someone who wears a headscarf for religious reasons.
  • Culture – such as discriminating against potential employees from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Resume bias is real. An article by Harvard Business School, for example, reports companies are more than twice as likely to interview candidates from minority groups who “whitened” their resumes than those who didn’t.
  • And many more, including sexual orientation, marital status, pregnancy, physical or mental disability, family or carer responsibilities, and political opinion.

Addressing discrimination in the workplace

When CEOs and managers let workplace discrimination go unchecked, they run risks that can impact their reputation and bottom line.

Missing out on great talent

Letting bias get in the way deprives organisations of the amazing pool of talent among people with diverse attributes.

For example, an organisation I know were hiring a receptionist. The person responsible for recruiting thought the role should be filled by a young female.

When I asked why, she couldn’t answer. Her unconscious bias restricted her from seeing that other candidates could excel in the job. In fact, one applicant’s resume was particularly impressive and their experience a perfect fit. They came for an interview – in a wheelchair. But the office couldn’t accommodate a wheelchair user, so they missed out on an ideal hire.

Situations like this can create even bigger problems for larger organisation, where there’s no excuse for not making the workplace accessible for an employee with a disability.

Court cases and financial losses

In the case of an unlawful discrimination claim, the Fair Work Ombudsman may take enforcement action if an investigation finds that ‘the employer has (or had) discriminatory practices that are linked to adverse actions for employees or prospective employees’.

Currently, the maximum penalty for breaching unlawful discrimination protections is $66,600 per contravention for a corporation, and $13,320 per contravention for an individual. Furthermore, if the Federal Court or Federal Circuit Court of Australia determines that someone has breached discrimination protections under the Fair Work Act, they can make any order they deem appropriate – including orders for compensation.

If discrimination takes place between co-workers, you may wind up facing a workplace bullying claim, which could land you before Fair Work, Worksafe, or in court charged under the Crimes Amendment (Bullying) Act 2011 ,known as Brodie’s Law. In other words, you could be battling multiple claims at once – compensation could be a monetary claim, expensive legal defence or possibly jail, and rulings forcing you to rectify the problem. Imagine the reputational damage this could cause your organisation (and its senior leaders).

Productivity costs

People being discriminated against at work are likely to feel inadequate and certainly won’t perform at their best. The productivity cost of employee disengagement is massive. According to Gallup’s 2017 State of the Global Workplace report, 71 per cent of employees in Australia and New Zealand are not engaged and a further 15 per cent are actively disengaged. This means they’re not simply unhappy at work but committed to undermining positive efforts from colleagues.

Disengagement is estimated to cost a company 34 per cent of an employee’s salary in lost productivity, which can add up to massive losses that could better be spent on building a diverse and inclusive workplace culture.

Upward bullying

If someone in a management or leaderships role is, for example, from a culturally or linguistically diverse background, and the rest of the workforce isn’t, you could end up with a case of upwards bullying. This happens when staff undermine, belittle, bully or harass someone in a more senior position.

Like all forms of bullying, this can cause harm and propel you into a bullying claim.

Diversity and inclusion drive innovation and growth

We’ve explored the downside of workplace discrimination, but it’s vital to consider the situation from the other side. Building a trust-based culture that celebrates the diversity of your staff can boost your financial position. The Gallup report found that businesses whose employees were in the top quartile of engagement had 17 per cent higher productivity and 21 per cent higher profitability than those in the bottom quartile.

More importantly, it creates a culture of innovation that positions your organisation for growth. I once worked with an organisation whose employees came from about 15 different cultural backgrounds. Every lunchtime, work stopped as table tennis tables were pulled out and everyone – including the managing director – played, ate, laughed and talked with each other.

Once per month, everyone would bring a dish from their culture to share. The conversations that opened up were extraordinary. It was an incredibly empowering environment to work in.

People from different cultures are likely to bring suites of diverse skillsets to organisations who embrace them. This ideally places such organisations for innovation and growth.

How to respond to discrimination in the workplace

Here are five ways to reduce the likelihood of discrimination in your workplace and encourage an inclusive culture characterised by trust and respect.

1.      Think about potential areas of bias

Some workplace discrimination is obvious, such as choosing not to hire someone because of their race or religion. Other biases are less so. The single parent father I mentioned earlier is an example. A few weeks after starting, he requested the flexible working arrangements. The company had thought this situation through for their female employees but hadn’t expected it for a male.

2.      Be clear about job expectations

In this same example, flexible working arrangements weren’t possible because of the requirements of the man’s job. If these had been laid out explicitly from the start, it may have been evident the role was incompatible with his parenting responsibilities.

As another example, someone who is Jewish may need to have Saturdays off for keeping Sabbath. If the job requires staff to work Saturday shifts, this may not be suitable.

3.      Be willing to compromise

In many situations like these, it’s possible to find a compromise that works for both parties. For example, one large former workplace of mine created a prayer room for their Muslim employees. They made it clear that staff were welcome to pray provided they also completed their 38 hours of work.

4.      Encourage communication

In the case of older versus younger staff I talked about earlier, we started to break down barriers by examining the strengths of both groups. The older workers had experience and skills from years on the job. The young ones were up on technology and the latest in the industry. We buddied a young person with an older one and encouraged them to look at things through the other person’s lens.

When I spoke to their boss a month later, she was amazed at how the dynamics had changed as the groups talked to each other and started understanding the value each brought to the workplace.

Prioritise self-reflection

Many biases are unconscious, but self-reflection can help to uncover the causes of discrimination. The person in front of you is a human being. They are not the problem. You need to look at what’s happening in your subconscious.

In my Trust Driven Performance™ workshops, we investigate where biases come from and create a safe space for talking openly about them. Then we explore ways to reprogram your thinking and give you a toolkit of skills for addressing what we find.

As a confidante and advisor, I help managers and business owners deal with difficult workplace issues, such as discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment.

My team and I focus on preventing inappropriate workplace behaviours wherever possible. If discrimination has become an issue, we can help you address the underlying problems and create a trust-based culture where all your staff feel safe and respected.