Discrimination in the Workplace – Have Things Changed?

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We all know that discrimination in any form is a Bad Thing and many of us will agree that it is something we should not do and also claim not to do but the fact is, we all discriminate occasionally. Fortunately for a lot of us it never gets further than a fleeting thought for which we berate ourselves for even allowing it to cross our minds. Other cases are not so disciplined however and the sad truth is, discrimination is alive today, and the workplace is no exception.

As we observe LGBT month, it seems like an apt time to reflect on the issue and it is worth asking ourselves whether things really have improved in the workplace. The good news is that things have noticeably changed for the better and discrimination against race, sex or any other factor has been greatly reduced, but it does still exist – just not so overtly.

In some cases it becomes an issue so early on that it does not even reach the workplace. Employers may have a quota to meet when it comes to putting together a more diverse workforce but for any ethnic minorities it can be difficult to even get an interview. This is especially difficult for women from an ethnic background and it is not unusual for a careers adviser to recommend that they make their CVs sound “whiter”. This was explored in a recent BBC News article that explained how an affected woman suddenly had more luck when she used her more English-sounding middle name in place of her first name on job applications. She also explains that she is not the only person to receive such advice and get more positive responses as a result. It’s a sad truth that many employers take racial backgrounds into consideration in this negative way, regardless of how good the application may be.

Discrimination on the Decline

But on a more positive note, racial discrimination in the workplace is on a constant decline and as society becomes more diverse, so too is the workforce. A lot can change in just a few years and if you look back to the distant past of the 1980s, racial slurs were commonplace and inserted in casual conversation, whether the employee in question was present to hear it or not. But as time moves on, the older – and indeed old-fashioned – members of staff are replaced by a newer breed that has grown up in a slightly more progressive society.

Sexual Discrimination

Sexual discrimination is also a smaller problem than before but it still has a notable presence in the workplace. It remains a common complaint today that many female employees receive less pay than a male would for the exact same job. This varies from job to job however, and there are many workplaces where highly competent female employees are given just as many chances to shine and progress in their careers.

But sexual discrimination is a complex issue that goes way beyond male employers mistreating female employees. LGBT rights are recognised now but their introduction was a shockingly recent development that is ongoing at an unfavourably slow rate. Casual discrimination in the workplace was a common occurrence; at least it was if a homosexual employee was lucky enough to get as far as employment. It will come as no surprise that many employers favoured heterosexual candidates and for a long time there was a strong stigma attached to gay and lesbian citizens.

Another all too common issue was the dismissal of a previously closeted employee whose sexual orientation had been discovered one way or another. Fortunately this too has improved significantly but there are still many backwards people out there making life unnecessarily difficult for them and LGBT employment rights can only go so far to improve the situation. It is certainly easier for an LGBT candidate to get a job but discrimination against them I the workplace has not completely been eradicated.

Legal Remedies to Workplace Discrimination

A remedy for workplace discrimination does exist in the form of legal requirements and the Equal Opportunities Act, which ensure that people are aware that integration and diversity are a Good Thing. But of course knowledge is not the same as belief and you cannot change the way people think that easily. It is good that such legal measures are in place but there is a negative implication behind them. After all, the fact that we need them in order to make sure employees are treated equally just goes to show that progress would be much slower if it were not a legal requirement.

The situation has improved significantly but it has been a gradual process and one that is incomplete. Making a specific point to avoid discrimination ensures that it is still ingrained in our minds, even if we do not act on it. As long as we have to make a special effort to avoid any kind of discrimination, it will still be hanging over us.

About Sam Reynolds

Sam Reynolds is a UK based author who writes on office and workplace topics for FlexiOffices.