Discrimination at work and how to reduce it

A new report is calling for action to bring down the number of discrimination cases in the workplace, but without better enforcement what can be achieved?

Gavel with employment written on it, representing employment law


A report out this week from the Resolution Foundation think tank focuses on discrimination in the workplace. Based on a survey of over 3,000 people, Policing Prejudice, found one in five had experienced some form of discrimination at work or when applying for a job over the last year.  Interestingly, age discrimination tops the list  – that includes discrimination against older and younger workers – with sex discrimination coming in second. But over a fifth of people from ethnic minority backgrounds said they had faced workplace discrimination in the last year based on their ethnicity and 15 per cent of disabled people reported discrimination linked to their disability.

The report shows that the lowest paid are more likely to be worried about discrimination – 20 per cent compared to 11 per cent of the highest paid. Yet the lowest paid are the least likely to be able to take legal action – in 2017, for instance, workers earning £40,000 or over were almost twice as likely to take their employer to court as those earning under £20,000. However, the report charts that cuts to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s budget and other limitations mean the Commission focuses mainly on supporting firms to comply with their obligations rather than enforcement action.

We know that many of the sex discrimination allegations relate to parenthood, in particular to pregnancy, maternity leave and flexible working. Yet taking legal action is a minefield. Firstly, you have to take action quickly – within three months of the alleged discrimination. Secondly, you need to understand if you have a case. Thirdly, you have to have the resources to get advice. Free advice services such as the Citizens Advice Bureau can be difficult to access due to demand. There are free helplines available, such as that run by Working Families and workingmums.co.uk has its own panel of legal experts who give free advice [write to [email protected] to get advice]. But that tends to only cover initial legal advice over what your next steps might be and whether you might have a case. To go further you tend to need paid legal advice. While you may be able to claim this back on your home insurance, that is not guaranteed and many people on lower incomes don’t have home insurance.

You can consider representing yourself as a woman who worked at Morrisons successfully did recently, but such cases are generally less likely to be successful. The Fawcett Society runs an equal pay advice service that addresses pay discrimination, set up with money donated by Carrie Gracie after she successfully sued the BBC. But discrimination is much broader than equal pay.

The Resolution Foundation says there is definitely room for improvement, arguing that the employment tribunal route needs to be both more accessible and efficient, through providing more financial help and extending the three-month limit to six months for taking action after discrimination has taken place. It says the Government also needs to prioritise clearing the huge backlog – which has more than doubled since 2018 – so cases are not stuck in the system for years and legislate to give the EHRC more resources and powers, such as to  impose financial penalties on employers who discriminate and to proactively inspect employers suspected of discrimination. And it states that the EHRC and other enforcement bodies need to join forces to address multiple offenders.

While individual legal action is important, it argues that state enforcement of anti-discrimination laws is critical to supporting the lowest paid who are unlikely to take a case to court.

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