Pregnant women and people suffering from stress and depression keep quiet when they are overlooked for promotion or forced out at work, over fears that complaining might damage their career prospects and that a claim could cost too much to prove.
A survey by Simpson Millar solicitors asked 1,000 people from a cross-section of the UK workforce whether they thought starting a legal claim against their employer might damage their future career prospects. A staggering 84% said yes.
The research also highlighted key obstacles for employees who feel they are being discriminated against at work. The cost of bringing a claim, fears that complaining could damage their career and worries about being able to prove their allegations are the top three reasons why employees simply keep quiet and carry on.
"Sadly, people are right to be worried about potential repercussions if they complain about a workplace discrimination issue. Even though their rights are clear, reality is that employers are sometimes savvy in subtly managing out unwanted employees. The repercussions aren't instant but rather a series of actions over time which ultimately drives people out. Everyone knows it so they chose to keep quiet," says Linda Stewart who is head of Employment Law at Simpson Millar.
Simpson Millar asked the survey participants about potential barriers to taking legal action in the following question: If you felt that you were being discriminated against in the workplace, which, if any, of the following would prevent you from instructing a solicitor and potentially pursuing a claim?
According to Linda, the issue is particularly prominent in tight-knit industries. "People talk and there is certainly a perception that raising a formal complaint or taking legal action against an employer will come back to haunt you. The worry that news of someone being a 'difficult employee' will travel is a major barrier for those who have a legitimate complaint to act on it. The problem is that ignoring it allows that culture to grow."
Sadly, the implications of having made a formal complaint or brought a claim against employers can remain invisible for several months before the ramifications become clear.
"I have advised a number of people who complained about a blatant discrimination issue. At first, it appears to have been addressed but then suddenly, a month or two later, they are selected for redundancy or someone else is promoted ahead of them. The link isn't obvious but everyone knows why it happened. It is a strategy of manoeuvring unwanted employees into a position where they either leave or can be cut loose."
Linda highlights stress and depression as the fastest rising reasons why employees face discrimination at work. "The discrimination often happens in the way managers deal with employees who are off sick with stress or depression. Whereas making reasonable adjustments at an early stage would assist many to return to work to work, managers who are unsure about their obligations to disabled staff often end up making the situation worse. Left unaddressed, the person ultimately loses their job when in fact they might have been able to return."
Simpson Millar represents a large number of pregnant women and new mothers who frequently suffer from workplace discrimination. It is an area that Linda is particularly passionate about changing, but the £250 up-front fee for submitting a discrimination claim and a £950 charge for having your case heard in the Employment Tribunal is proving to be a significant barrier.
"The number of women who describe how dramatically their role and job prospects deteriorated once they announced that they were expecting a baby is quite staggering. Many are managed out of the business, and some employers aren't even discrete about it. These cases are often open and shut but women end up not bringing them because they can't afford the tribunal fees – especially not with a baby on the way. Discrimination is being aided by a tribunal system that prevents important claims from being made."