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Understanding and Addressing Unlawful Workplace Discrimination

Workplace discrimination in action

Workplace discrimination is a critical issue that continues to affect numerous employees and organisations worldwide. However, not all employees understand what constitutes unlawful workplace discrimination, and many fail to recognise the importance of maintaining a respectful and inclusive work environment.

This article delves into the nature of unlawful discrimination in the workplace, its prevalence, especially in Australian contexts, the consequences it bears, and effective ways to address it.

By shedding light on these aspects of unlawful workplace discrimination, we aim to empower individuals with knowledge and solutions to tackle this pervasive issue. 

What Is Considered Unlawful Discrimination In The Workplace?

Unlawful discrimination in the workplace is a significant breach of employee rights, as outlined in the Fair Work Act. This form of discrimination occurs when an employer takes adverse action against an employee or a prospective employee based on specific attributes. These may include their race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, age, disability, marital status, family or carer’s responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction, or social origin.

Adverse actions, which are unlawful when motivated by discriminatory reasons, can manifest in various ways. This might include dismissing an employee, causing injury to an employee, altering an employee’s position to their detriment, or discriminating between employees. Additionally, it can include refusing to employ an individual or discriminating against them in the terms and conditions of employment offers. 

Protection against unlawful discrimination is afforded to full-time, part-time, and casual employees, as well as probationary employees, apprentices, trainees, and those employed for fixed periods or specific tasks. Both employers and employees must understand these protections to ensure a fair and equitable workplace is provided for all. 

How Many Australians Experience Discrimination In The Workplace? 

The exact extent of workplace discrimination in Australia is not easy to identify. While studies on various topics have occurred and findings do present some statistics, it is generally believed that not all employees may understand or recognise that they have experienced workplace discrimination, or may not have been forthcoming in reporting it.

Nevertheless, research presented by the Australian Government revealed that in  2020, 13.3% of Australians experienced some form of discrimination in the past year. Further to this, the Australian Human Rights Commission undertook a niche study examining the extent of workplace discrimination in Australia against mothers, finding that 49% of them experienced discrimination in the workplace at some point during pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work.

Discrimination at work can be pervasive, and it can impact any individual. However, workplace discrimination is often centred around matters of gender, age, race and disability status. 

What Are The Consequences of Discrimination At Work? 

The incidence of workplace discrimination can impose a number of consequences on both the employer and the employee. When an employee is unfairly treated and unlawfully discriminated against in the workplace, they may experience a hostile work atmosphere, decreased job satisfaction, emotional distress, and potential career stagnation or regression. It’s also important to recognise that these individual impacts can ripple outwards, affecting overall workplace morale, reducing productivity, and tarnishing the organisation’s reputation and employer brand.

Legally, the repercussions of workplace discrimination can be severe. Under the Fair Work Act, if the Federal Court or Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia finds a violation of discrimination protections, they have the authority to impose a range of penalties. These can include injunctions, orders for reinstatement of an unfairly treated employee, and compensation for damages suffered due to the discriminatory action. Such legal actions not only lead to financial penalties but can also result in long-term legal ramifications for the employer.

The consequences can also go beyond these immediate legal outcomes. They also involve potential long-term damage to an organisation’s public image and internal culture. In today’s socially conscious business environment, adherence to fair and equitable treatment is not just a legal mandate but a crucial aspect of organisational ethics and responsibility. Addressing and preventing discrimination is key to fostering a positive and productive workplace.

How To Address Discrimination In The Workplace 

If you have been subject to workplace discrimination, it can be hard to know how to address it. In these instances, it’s important to remember that the Fair Work Ombudsman can help in these cases of adverse actions. If you suspect that you or a colleague are a victim of workplace discrimination, you can seek assistance by contacting the FWO or submitting an online enquiry.

If there’s an allegation of workplace discrimination, the FWO may initiate litigation against the employer for contravening the Fair Work Act (FW Act). Additionally, affected employees have the option to lodge a complaint with the Fair Work Commission (FWC). This is particularly relevant for those who haven’t been dismissed but allege a violation of discrimination protection provisions under the FW Act.

For employees dismissed on discriminatory grounds, such as race, sex, age, or disability, the first course of action is to apply to the FWC. It’s important to note that applications related to general protections (including unfair dismissal or unlawful termination) must be lodged within 21 days of dismissal.

Throughout these processes, employment lawyers can provide essential advice and support. Their expertise in navigating the complexities of employment law and the Fair Work Act is invaluable in addressing and resolving discrimination issues in the workplace.

Be Proactive In Addressing Workplace Discrimination

Workplace discrimination is a serious issue that demands prompt and proactive action. If you face such a situation, remember that you are not alone. Seeking assistance at the earliest sign of discrimination is crucial for protecting your rights. Experienced employment lawyers are always available to offer guidance and support, ensuring that your concerns are addressed effectively. Their expertise can be instrumental in navigating these challenges and upholding justice in your workplace.

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