More than one-third (36%) of UK employees report experiencing workplace discrimination, with a similar number (34%) believing that they have been turned down from a job due to discrimination of some kind, according to polling.
The new research, commissioned by CIPHR, found that, on average, one in six workers (16%) have suffered ageism, one in ten (10%) have been the subject of gender-based discrimination (12% of women and 7% of men), and one in 12 have experienced prejudicial treatment due to a disability, their race, or sexual orientation (9%, 9%, and 8% respectively) at some point in their careers.
Digging further into the data, more than one in ten (11%) adults believe their age was a factor in not getting jobs they have applied for, while more than one in 20 (5.7%) said they experienced workplace discrimination based on their age.
Employment tribunal statistics released earlier this year showed a significant increase in claims of age discrimination, rising from 208 to 1,166.
The polling of 2,000 UK adults suggests younger workers are more likely to perceive workplace discrimination and call out bias at work. Three-quarters of 18-to-24-year-olds (73%) and half of 25-to-34-year-olds (50%) say they have experienced discriminatory attitudes and behaviours at work or during the recruitment process, compared to one in five over-45s (22%).
Also cited by more than one in 20 workers (5.3%), gender discrimination was found to be the second-most-reported form of workplace discrimination, while 4.7% of employees allege they have been refused a job due to their sex.
Also of note, around 4% of workers feel they have been subject to some form of discrimination as a result of being at high risk of becoming seriously ill due to coronavirus, while 5.3% believe they have been refused a job for being in an at-risk category.
Younger workers seem to be bearing the brunt of this new form of discrimination, with one in ten 18-to-24-year-olds reporting discrimination due to being at higher risk from covid-19 or acknowledging their fears of returning to their office (10%).
Around the same number (12% of 18 to 24-year-olds) feel that being clinically vulnerable or at higher risk of getting seriously ill from covid-19 has proved a factor in not obtaining jobs they have applied for.
Looking at the sector-specific data, those working in HR were the most likely to feel discriminated against, with almost 79% of workers experiencing discrimination of some kind – the most common of which was reportedly age discrimination (36%) in the workplace and when job hunting (25%). HR also performs badly for gender and disability discrimination (cited by 25% and 21% of people, respectively).
Those working in IT and telecommunications (60%) and finance (57%) also feel highly discriminated against, particularly in relation to race (14% each). Meanwhile, 59% of legal sector workers also feel discriminated against, with gender discrimination (22%) the most often cited after age (36%).
The survey also suggests location has a bearing on discrimination rates. London workers reported the highest rates of workplace discrimination (46%), followed by Brighton (41%), Manchester (38%), Nottingham (37%) and Birmingham (37%).
More than half of the adults (54%) living in Greater London reported experiencing discrimination at work or when applying for jobs, well above the UK average of 36%.
The most common forms of discrimination reported in the capital are: age discrimination when job hunting (14%); race discrimination in the workplace (12%); race discrimination when job hunting (11%); being clinically vulnerable or at higher risk of serious illness when job hunting during the pandemic (11%); discrimination arising from anxiety or fear of working in a workplace during the pandemic (10%).
Around one in 14 adults in the city have experienced gender discrimination in the workplace and when applying for jobs (7.2% and 8.4% respectively). A similar number (7.6%) feel their sexuality has been a factor in not getting roles they have applied for.
Despite the protections offered by the Equality Act 2010, the survey also found that almost two in five workers (38%) said fear of being treated unfairly by their employer would put them off taking legal action. Fear of losing the case (33%) and the potential impact on finances (35%) were also cited as reasons for not taking legal action against an employer. Only one in five (20%) employees said nothing would deter them from taking legal action, according to the poll.
Commenting on the findings, Claire Williams, director of people and services at CIPHR, said: “All organisations should already have equal opportunities and anti-harassment and bullying policies in place, but they have to go further to ensure that their actions also counter discrimination and encourage diversity and fair treatment. It is not good enough to just have a policy; employees expect more.”
Williams said employers and HR should introduce practices that prevent and proactively tackle workplace discrimination: “This means investing in training and awareness and ensuring that management at all levels are leading by example – creating a safe working environment and a positive culture where discrimination, and other unacceptable behaviours, are actively called out and eradicated.”
She continued: “Looking at this research, it’s concerning to see that workplace discrimination is still so rife, not just in the workplace but all the way through the recruitment process. Despite all the headlines and the calls for action, employers are still letting prejudice and unconscious bias turn away top talent from their business.
“To ensure a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination, and help organisations attract and retain the best employees, HR professionals need to work with their employers to make fundamental changes to processes, to minimise or remove the opportunity for bias.”
Suggestions for employers looking to tackle workplace discrimination include: investing in recruitment software and processes that anonymise candidates; using various screening and assessment tools to remove personal prejudice; introducing minimum gender and diversity quotas at the interview stage; providing regular, in-depth anti-discrimination training; and using diversity, equity, and inclusion data to help identify potential areas that need improvement.