One-in-five people say they have experienced some form of workplace discrimination in the past year – from being turned down for a job to being denied promotions or training – and low-paid workers are twice as likely to be concerned about it than high-paid staff, according to new research published today (Tuesday) by the Resolution Foundation.
The research uses a YouGov survey of 3,419 GB adults aged 18 to 65 to assess the extent of workplace discrimination across the UK, as well as analysis of court data to assess efforts to stamp it out.
While laws preventing discrimination have been in place since the 1960s, the research shows that it remains a widespread issue in workplaces today, with one-in-five (20 per cent) people saying that they have experienced some form of discrimination either at work, or applying for work.
The most common form of reported discrimination is being turned down for a job (13 per cent), followed by being turned down for promotion (8 per cent) or denied training opportunities (7 per cent).
The authors note that discrimination is not faced equally by all workers. Over a fifth (21 per cent) of those from ethnic minority backgrounds say they faced discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity alone, while one-in-seven (15 per cent) people with a disability say they have experienced discrimination on the grounds of disability.
Disabled people and those from an ethnic minority background are also more likely to report discrimination on the grounds of other protected characteristics such as age and sex.
Overall, the most common grounds for discrimination are age (3.7 million) and sex (2.7 million), but the likelihood of facing race or disability discrimination is far higher for workers with these characteristics.
The report finds that low-paid workers are twice as likely to be concerned about discrimination at work as high-paid workers – 20 per cent of the lowest-paid quarter of staff are concerned, compared to 11 per cent of the highest-paid quarter of staff. Similarly, reported discrimination is far higher in low-paying sectors such as retail (22 per cent) and hospitality (20 per cent), than in higher paying sectors such as manufacturing and finance (both 14 per cent).
However, while low-paid workers are most likely to be anxious about discrimination, they are also the least likely to challenge it through the courts. In 2017, workers earning under £20,000 were almost half as likely to take their employer to court as those earning £40,000 or over.
The author says that this is likely due to the employment tribunal (ET) system tending to favour higher-paid workers as they are more likely to have the resources required to navigate it.
The average ET case takes a year to be heard, while the high rate of out-of-court settlements (between 66 and 80 per cent for discrimination cases, compared to 66 per cent for all ET cases) is of more use to high-paid workers if agreements are earnings-related.
In reality, fewer than one per cent of discrimination cases ever make it to court, and the success rate for discrimination cases that do make it to a full hearing is far lower (from 20 to 43 per cent) than the average across all cases (61 per cent).
This is particularly important because state enforcement of anti-discrimination law, through the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), can only help in a limited number of cases. The EHRC focuses much of its effort on providing guidance for businesses, and can also help workers with legal fees. But its limited budget (down four-fifths since 2008-09) and lack of powers (it cannot issue financial penalties directly, for example) mean that it must prioritise only those cases that are likely to have the biggest impact.
Turning to how Britain can do a better job of stamping out discrimination in the workplace, the research says that the ET system is likely to remain the main route for enforcement, and should therefore be better resourced in order to reduce the amount of time cases take to be heard.
Legal aid should also be extended to support more low-paid workers seek recourse through the courts. And the EHRC should be given the resources and powers to undertake more proactive enforcement, alongside introducing financial penalties for those employers that do flout the rules.
Hannah Slaughter, Senior Economist at the Resolution Foundation, said:
“Britain has had laws preventing discrimination in place since the 1960s, yet it remains all too common in workplaces today. One-in-five people say they have experienced some form of workplace discrimination in the past year, from being passed over for a new job, to missing out on a promotion and being denied training.
“Low-paid workers are most likely to be worried about discrimination at work, but the shortcomings of our legal system mean they are the least likely to try and address mistreatment through the courts.
“Employers and workers alike need to better understand what constitutes discrimination in workplaces today, and be confident that where it does occur, it can be stamped out either through dialogue, or the courts.”
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:
“Everyone deserves to be treated fairly and with respect and dignity at work. But far too many workers face discrimination just because of their race, gender, age, sexuality or class.
“Ground-breaking research published by the TUC last month found that two in five BME workers have experienced workplace discrimination, like being unfairly disciplined or passed over for training and promotion opportunities.
“Employers must adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination. They must ensure that they protect and support all their staff who are subject to racial abuse – and make sure that workers who raise issues about racism are not victimised or relegated from the workplace as a result.
“Anyone worried about workplace discrimination should join their union, to make sure they are supported and represented at work.”
The figures covering reported experience of workplace discrimination are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 4,434 adults, of which 3,419 were aged 18 to 65. Fieldwork was undertaken between 22nd – 23rd September 2022. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+). The figures presented from the online survey have been analyzed independently by Resolution Foundation.