With the number of workplace discrimination cases rising, it is vital that HR professionals confront, tackle and remove prejudice in the workplace, but how should they go about it? Nick Golding finds out.
The number of workplace discrimination cases, where workers drag their employer through the courts over alleged unfair treatment because of their age, background or gender, is growing at a rapid pace. Employment Tribunal statistics show, for instance, that the number of age discrimination claims that were brought to tribunal in April 2007 had tripled by March 2008, prompting HR departments up and down the country to take a long look at their own strategy when it comes to dealing with prejudice at work. Dr Pete Jones, research director at psychologist firm Shire Professional, explains that HR departments that can be honest and recognise prejudice exists within their organisation without turning a blind eye, will be the ones that can deal with it the most effectively. "Let’s stop demonising it and be honest by saying that we are all prejudice. Until we get it out and hold them all up for scrutiny it can’t be dealt with," he remarks.
For HR there are many challenges when it comes to battling against discrimination at work; not only is it often difficult to spot but dealing with the issue is a legal minefield with every step demanding the utmost expertise. But, as Jones warns, without acceptance, any HR strategy is going to be limited. "HR might take the view that prejudice is a bad thing, but I take the view that prejudice is very natural and normal and by constantly denying it and demonising it we drive it underground." Once 'underground', businesses are faced with the challenge of locating where it exists in order to remove it, so HR must monitor staff and analyse key data, identifying whether, for instance, bonuses are rare among certain groups or if groups of employees are being disciplined more than others. "Certain signs can give HR a clue that some people along the business process are making decisions that are influenced by bias, little bits of behaviour are giving these people away and need to be picked up on by HR," adds Jones. More often than not individuals are unconsciously allowing bias to cloud their judgement in the workplace, and although these employees believe themselves to be fair and non-subjective, the reality is quite different. But training can help employees learn to safeguard themselves from making unfair decisions whether they are recruiting, promoting or disciplining in the workplace, and a greater level of understanding of prejudices can substantially dilute biased views at work, according to Tiffany Bowles, senior consultant at people at work experts Get Feedback. She says: "I think as human beings we can’t help but be prejudiced and biased up to a point, but training can help, especially for those conducting interviews. In fact research has shown that one key way to reduce bias is by training assessors in the bias that exists."
Training also acts as a huge benefit to line managers, helping them to stay inside ever-moving legal boundaries, and ensure that no slip ups in the way that managers address members of staff, recruit or discipline, expose the organisation to discrimination claims. Simon Lambert, associate at Eversheds, explains: "Bodies such as The Employers Forum on Age will come into the workplace and run workshops to help tease out problems, such as whether blind employees should be called blind or visually impaired. The arena is constantly changing so line mangers are bound to find it difficult." Ideally, HR would rather not recruit those individuals with traits of prejudice behaviour in the first place, and a specific strategy to weed out the troublesome candidates at the recruitment stage can help to keep the intake to a minimum. Psychometric testing can be used to identify many different traits of an individual’s personality and indicate to an employer whether they would be suitable for certain roles or to work within certain environments. The test involves a series of questions and though some believe that they carry the potential of revealing any bias or discriminatory traits, others are not so sure of their validity. Lambert says: "I’ve always seen them (psychometric tests) as predictors of skills against a certain skills criteria. But if you want to tease out whether someone could be inherently racist or discriminatory, I’m not convinced." Clearly there are limits to the capabilities of employers when it comes to spotting prejudice workers, but the wise HR departments are the ones that have a strategy that does not see prejudice as something that can be swept under the carpet. Instead, they analyse employee trends and behaviour, train management to be able to cope with prejudice attitudes, and more importantly try to identify areas where certain groups of staff are being disadvantaged. The likelihood is that prejudice attitudes, in some form, will continue to exist; HR must use knowledge and data to design a strategy that can identify it, control it and then manage it within their own organisations.