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Workplace discrimination

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Addressing workplace discrimination is more important than ever.

When workplace discrimination occurs, it can create a toxic environment for those impacted. COVID-19, Me Too, and Black Lives Matter have magnified conversations about our protections, obligations and responsibilities with regards to workplace discrimination.

We asked if, and how, workers experienced discrimination in the past 12 months. Here’s what workers had to say about their experiences.

Discrimination is still experienced by many workers.

More than 1 in 8 workers (12.4%) experienced workplace discrimination in the last 12 months. These workers experienced workplace discrimination relating to things like their gender (30.6%), age (34.2%), race (29.1%), religion (13.2%), or family responsibilities (21.6%). 1 in 5 workers (21.8%) experienced discrimination based on mental ill-health.

Discrimination is still experienced by many workers.

I feel because I have no children, I am expected to do the work and hours that people with children do not do.”

More than 1 in 8 workers (12.4%) experienced workplace discrimination in the last 12 months. These workers experienced workplace discrimination relating to things like their gender (30.6%), age (34.2%), race (29.1%), religion (13.2%), or family responsibilities (21.6%). 1 in 5 workers (21.8%) experienced discrimination based on mental ill-health.

My workplace is racist, gender bias and bullying exists.”

They do not believe in people working from home. They don’t even allow women to have part time hours when they have young children.”

I am disappointed by my employer because although they have these mental health policies in place, it more talk than walk. They never genuinely and fully implement anything.”

The stigma around mental health is improving, but there is a long way to go

For workers who experienced a mental health condition in the past 12 months and experienced discrimination, almost a third reported that the discrimination they experienced was based on mental ill-health.

Even though workplaces are taking mental health and wellbeing more seriously, a lot of action is still directed at offering limited support through an Employee Assistance Program or similar when someone becomes unwell. Even with such programs in place, stigma is still a problem for Australian workforces.

The stigma around mental health is improving, but there is a long way to go

My workplace makes people feel very judged and like they are “in trouble” for having mental health problems. It should be treated more similarly to when you are physically ill.”

For workers who experienced a mental health condition in the past 12 months and experienced discrimination, almost a third reported that the discrimination they experienced was based on mental ill-health.

Even though workplaces are taking mental health and wellbeing more seriously, a lot of action is still directed at offering limited support through an Employee Assistance Program or similar when someone becomes unwell. Even with such programs in place, stigma is still a problem for Australian workforces.

I think there is still such stigma around mental health, it’s a hard subject to discuss. I know there have been times in the last 12 months I have felt mentally very unwell and needed time away from work but felt obliged to come up with physical symptoms (excuses) in order to take much needed time away. And typically, still worked from home when taking personal leave.”

I think there is still a large stigma around mental health. In the past, I have had to take a day off due to mental health reasons and was not able to bring myself to make a phone call. So, I sent an email directly to my manager, with ample notice that I would be off for one day due to mental health reasons. And I was pulled into their office and told that next time I need to phone and “explain myself.”

It is very difficult to report mental health issues when the whole workforce or system pays deaf ears to the concerns of workers from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Fear of job loss leads to under reporting

If the high amount of discrimination experienced by workers comes as a surprise, it’s because it can often be under reported by workers.

Once you speak up about a problem you are an issue.”

I’m not comfortable talking about it to my manager. Since I’m new in the role, they may fire me if I make such requests. They have done that in the past to another employee.”

As COVID-19 saw radical changes and uncertainty across our workplaces, job losses were a frightening reality for many. When people fear for their jobs, they’ll put up with a lot.

[My organisation is] not interested in mental health of workers – seen as should just be grateful for a job.”

Younger working adults – those aged 18 to 35 – experienced the most discrimination

Starting your career journey is difficult enough. Navigating workplaces while working from home, trying to build relationships over a video screen, and organisational change and uncertainty can make the beginning of your career even more challenging.

Younger staff who do a huge amount of work for the company including overtime, don’t get paid well and are treated unfairly.”

COVID-19 created a perfect storm of risk. Roles like essential retail, food delivery, and supermarkets are often held by young people as they juggle study and other activities. Typically, these roles are insecure, casualised, or part of the gig economy.

In 2021, 28.3% of young workers experienced workplace discrimination, with nearly half of those (47.8%) experiencing discrimination because of mental ill-health.

Workplace discrimination is rife across roles

It’s easy to assume workplace discrimination only happens to non-managers, or junior managers. But, 1 in 6 business owners (15.2%) experienced discrimination in the workplace. This makes it the most common role type to experience discrimination. The pressures of 2021 on business owners cannot be underestimated. Discrimination was most commonly based on gender (33.2%), physical ill-health (32.7%), sexual orientation (31.3%), and mental ill-health (25.3%).

My workplace likes to make out the company has great working conditions, [but] if I was female or culturally diverse, I may not be in the position I am now.”

Workplace discrimination is rife across roles

It’s easy to assume workplace discrimination only happens to non-managers, or junior managers. But, 1 in 6 business owners (15.2%) experienced discrimination in the workplace. This makes it the most common role type to experience discrimination. The pressures of 2021 on business owners cannot be underestimated. Discrimination was most commonly based on gender (33.2%), physical ill-health (32.7%), sexual orientation (31.3%), and mental ill-health (25.3%).

1 in 7 senior managers (14.1%) also experienced discrimination. This was most commonly based on age (33.0%), gender (32.1%), personal presentation (31.2%) and family caregiving responsibilities (26.3%).

Working in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment while trying to retain workers, navigate restrictions and juggle their own personal lives is no mean feat. Creating a thriving workplace starts at the top, but it doesn’t stop at the top. Respect, support and kindness must flow upwards through an organisation as well as downwards.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience discrimination more than twice as much

First Nations peoples continue to be discriminated against in the workplace, with 27.1% experiencing discrimination. In the last twelve months, we’ve seen a global reckoning with racial equity, with the Black Lives Matter movement progressing discussion and action in Australia, as well as around the world.

I identify as Aboriginal and received racist discrimination during NAIDOC Week recently. I have reported this outside my [store] location and it looks like I am finally receiving some sort of support and respect.”

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Australians experience discrimination more than twice as much

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Australians continue to be discriminated against in the workplace, with 27.1% experiencing discrimination. In the last twelve months, we’ve seen a global reckoning with racial equity, with the Black Lives Matter movement progressing discussion and action in Australia, as well as around the world.

While support is improving, making sure the experiences, skills and knowledge of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Australians are central to our workplace culture is essential to furthering a thriving workplace.

What you can do

Whether it’s working out how to best promote inclusion for remote workforces, or how to make our workplaces safer for those who are immunocompromised, creating a positive workplace culture free from bullying, harassment and discrimination has never been more important.

A thriving workplace is one where everyone can do their best work. Harnessing unique strengths and capabilities are far more likely to result in organisational success than stereotypes and echo chambers.

What workers suggest:

Have an open, honest and non-judgemental conversation to genuinely establish what the person needs support with. The biggest problem – as I see it – is trying to apply solutions with broad brush strokes, without taking the time to realise that every person is an individual, with unique stressors and unique needs.”

Examine the conditions that created or exacerbated the mental ill-health and make meaningful changes to prevent recurrence.”

Don’t make assumptions about my health or about me as an employee without taking the time to talk to me and by treating me as an equal.”

Appreciate my life skills more – as a mature worker I don’t feel valued.”

Understand that my autoimmune disease does not stop me being a good employee.”

Actions you can take:

Self-reflect

It’s human nature to have biases, many of which are unconscious. What assumptions or stereotypes might influence your actions? Becoming more aware of our biases can help us identify where discrimination might show up.

Sometimes our biases are so entrenched, we don’t even notice them. Take for example the manager who loves being in the office – loves the energy and environment of everyone being in the same space. They might be more inclined to make everyone return to the office, as it best suits their personal preference.

Be careful to avoid making assumptions about how individuals should behave, act, or look. Some workplace norms can contribute to indirect discrimination. Think preferencing a male without caring responsibilities over a single female with a family for a senior management role. Or assuming that someone in traditional cultural dress isn’t as professional as someone in a suit and tie.

Our diverse strengths, knowledge and experiences are our superpowers. Rather than thinking how you can make people work or be more like you, ask, how can I understand my people’s strengths and preferences to help us thrive together?

Have robust policies and procedures in place

Clear policies and procedures around mental health and wellbeing, bullying, harassment and discrimination that are seen in action by employees bring significant benefits for both workers and organisations. Share your policies and procedures regularly and broadly with workers.

Make sure your organisational policies and procedures are suitable for discrimination that might occur not only between colleagues, but also discrimination or inappropriate behaviour from clients, customers, executive team members, board directors and other stakeholders. Discrimination and inappropriate behaviour are never acceptable, no matter the person’s role or status.

Try asking workers if they perceive the policies to be applied fairly and whether they understand how decisions are made. If not, consider hosting lunch and learn sessions, or working through a de-identified or invented case study to help people understand how policies and procedures come to life, and what they can do if they experience workplace discrimination.

Learn More

Understand your protections, obligations and responsibilities with regards to workplace discrimination. There’s lots of information to help you get started. Visit:

Australian Human Rights Commission: Workplace Discrimination, Harrassment and Bullying
Fair Work Ombudsman: Workplace discrimination

If you’re a small business owner, check out NewAccess by Beyond Blue, a free and confidential mental health coaching program, designed to give small business owners, including sole traders support.

Beyond Blue: New Access