Organisations need to address discrimination before reskilling their workers
20 May 2021
This is the second of six articles in a series exploring the UK public’s feelings towards the future of work, following our recent Upskilling Hopes and Fears survey.
Most companies would say they do not tolerate discriminatory behaviours - and so their workers do not experience them. But research is increasingly emerging to suggest the experiences and perceptions of employees may be different.
Our Upskilling Hopes and Fears survey of 2,001 UK workers (and 32,500 globally) suggests an alarming 41% of people in the UK believe they have been overlooked for career advancement or training due to their gender, ethnicity, age, religion, disability, social class, caring responsibilities or sexual orientation.
Experiences or perceptions of discrimination could limit reskilling success
While these statistics are concerning in themselves, considering them in the context of the future of work raises more risks. If workers don’t currently believe opportunities are offered fairly, then these experiences may well be repeated as organisations move to new models. This means inequalities or perceptions of unfairness may be perpetuated during the reskilling process. Organisations need to take action at the planning stage to ensure inappropriate behaviours or unfair practices are identified and addressed before they undertake more fundamental work on reskilling.
Our research shows UK workers feel they have been overlooked for career advancement or inclusion in training because of their gender, race, age, religion, disability, social class, caring responsibilities and sexual orientation.
One in six women feel they have been overlooked at work because of their gender
Organisations have made significant progress in recent years towards empowering women in the workplace. But our research shows there’s still a long way to go. One in six women told us they felt they had been overlooked for career advancement or training because of their gender.
Our research suggests that there may be a link between experiences of discrimination and negative attitudes towards the future. Fewer than one third (29%) of women surveyed feel positively about how the future world of work is likely to affect them compared to nearly half (45%) of men. More women (41%) also say they feel nervous about what the future holds for them than men (29%). Active engagement in reskilling will be critical to the future success of many organisations - so pessimistic attitudes among such large groups are concerning.
One in four workers from ethnic minority backgrounds feel they have been overlooked at work because of their ethnicity
It’s not just gender balance that’s been front-of-mind for organisations in recent years: the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement has helped to amplify conversations on race and ethnicity. Our research shows the issue remains an urgent one. Concerningly, one in four people of ethnic minority backgrounds told us they believed they had been overlooked for career advancement or training because of their ethnicity.
This could, in turn, be driving more pessimistic attitudes towards the future of work among people from ethnic minority backgrounds. More than one quarter (27%) believe it is likely their job could be made obsolete within five years, compared to 18% of white employees. At the same time, nearly half (43%) of workers from ethnic minority backgrounds say they lack access to technology which in turn limits their opportunity to learn new skills - higher than the one third (33%) of white employees who responded in the same way.
These statistics are particularly concerning because they suggest that future workforce changes could have unintentional negative implications for diversity. Addressing this disparity will therefore be key to ensuring that future workforce planning reinforces and drives diversity and equality.
Focus on transparency
Our findings emphasise the importance of transparency of decision making around areas such as pay, promotion, performance and access to learning. Transparency is often an important tool in calling to light and addressing unfairness and discrimination, and it can also help deal with perceptions of unfairness, so that everyone feels supported, confident and included at work.
But they also show that unacceptable levels of discrimination still exist in many workplaces. To make a change, organisations need to apply the same business acumen to diversity and inclusion as they would any other issue - with a clear business case, direct accountability, and specific targets and resources allocated.
Don’t assume your organisation doesn’t have an issue. Speak to your people to understand if and how they feel discrimination has impacted their career. One of the trickiest elements to tackling these discriminatory behaviours is that they may not be recognised as such by the person responsible. In other words, they may be microaggressions. In these cases, it’s important to understand how, when and where these behaviours are occurring. You can then begin to understand and tackle the root causes - whether that’s through education for staff, changes to key organisational processes, or leadership messages.
Make tackling discrimination a central part of your ESG strategy, and analyse your employee and diversity data to identify potential discrimination risks - both now and in the future. If you do nothing, you will create a more unequal tomorrow for your people and society. You will also create barriers to your workers’ development, increasing the risk of skills shortages in the future.
Our research shows worrying levels of discrimination still exist in the UK workforce, which is limiting the success of upskilling programmes.