Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

You Think It's Bad Here...Try the Rest of the World (Part I)

May 13th, 2003 | Paula Brantner

The headline read: Bias Still Prevalent in Workplace. “Tell me something I don’t know,” I thought to myself. But the story actually alerted me to a recent report issued by the International Labor Organization, the United Nations‘ specialized agency which seeks the promotion of social justice and internationally recognized human and labour rights. The report, entitled Time for Equality at Work,

examines the diverse forms of discrimination at work that have been identified and formally condemned nationally and internationally. It gives an update of the various policy and practical responses, with the aim of mobilizing greater support for the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.

(See Executive Summary.) This is a formidable task and an admirable goal, to be sure. What does the report teach us about the world of discrimination and discrimination throughout the world?

What is Discrimination, and Why Is It So Harmful?

The report defines discrimination as “treating people differently because of certain characteristics, such as race, colour or sex, which results in the impairment of equality of opportunity and treatment.” Discrimination is harmful on both an individual and societal level:

The freedom of human beings to develop their capabilities and to choose and pursue their professional and personal aspirations is restricted, without regard for ability. Skills and competencies cannot be developed, rewards to work are denied and a sense of humiliation, frustration and powerlessness takes over. Society at large is also profoundly affected. The waste of human talent and resources has a detrimental effect on productivity, competitiveness and the economy; socio-economic inequalities are widened, social cohesion and solidarity are eroded and political stability comes under threat.

What Is the Current State of Workplace Discrimination?

The report notes some recent positive developments:

• Countries have adopted laws against discrimination and have undertaken proactive approaches to eliminate unequal treatment at work.

• Enterprises and employers worldwide have modified recruitment and hiring procedures and practices, wage-setting systems and management policies to ensure fairness at work.

• Trade unions have made equality their goal in collective bargaining and in other actions, as well as in their internal representative structures.

As a result: “[s]ome of the most blatant forms of discrimination have faded away; however, many still remain or have taken on new forms. In many cases, discrimination has acquired more subtle, less visible forms. Changes in the structure and dynamics of labour markets, which stem from broader political, economic and cultural processes, redefine patterns of social stratification and social mobility. They produce new manifestations of discrimination.” Eliminating discrimination in the workplace,

however, has broader societal implications:

The workplace — be it a factory, an office, a plantation, a farm or the street — is a strategic entry point to free society from discrimination. When the workplace brings together people with different characteristics and treats them fairly, it helps to combat stereotypes in society as a whole. It forces a situation where prejudices can be defused and rendered obsolete. A socially inclusive world of work helps to prevent and to redress social fragmentation, racial and ethnic conflict and gender inequalities. If the capacity to deal efficiently with discrimination in the workplace is not strengthened, it will be more difficult to face the challenges arising out of increases in internal and external migration, unprecedented technological change, transition to market economies with their rapidly shifting groups of winners and losers, and the need to accommodate and reconcile a variety of languages, cultures and values. This may well be the most challenging task of contemporary society, and it is essential for social peace and democracy.

(See Report Introduction.)

These excerpts are insightful and helpful as we consider the larger problem of societal discrimination and measure our efforts to promote fairness in the workplace. Further blog entries will look in more detail at some of the report’s findings and conclusions, as the breadth of the report is too vast to address in one single entry here. However, those interested in tackling the full report can access it online at the ILO site, divided into several parts:

Report: Part 1

Report: Part 2

Report: Part 3

Report: Part 4

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