As an employer discrimination is a four letter word, something you would loathe to be accused of.  But many employers would be surprised to know that they’re probably guilty of it without even realising.


What is it?

Discrimination refers to the unjust or prejudicial treatment of a person based on a particular attribute.  Rejecting an employment application based on race or age, or reducing hours of a pregnant employee are obvious examples of discrimination, but there are many actions that you may not even think of as being discriminatory, and you may perform them regularly.

Simple things, like requesting details of gender or date of birth on an employment application can be deemed discriminatory, as Woolworths found out in 2014 when a potential applicant lodged a complaint with the Anti-Discrimination Commission of Queensland.  The complaint was upheld after being referred to the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

Advertising for a ’young and energetic’ sales assistant, or for a person with 10yrs experience can fall foul of discrimination legislation on the basis of age, as could a simple enquiry as to the intentions of retirement to older employees. The scheduling of training activities or job interviews may also be deemed discriminatory if they preclude the attendance of those who have religious or family commitments at that time.

Many unintended acts of discrimination lead to legal action.  Innocent mistakes may be settled by mediation or conciliation, but could proceed through to tribunal or commission hearings – whether or not there was an actual intent to discriminate is generally irrelevant.  Employers may also find themselves held vicariously liable for the discriminatory acts of their employees.

Defending yourself against legal action, whether or not discrimination actually occurred, costs both time and money, and can be damaging to business reputation.

How to avoid it

1 – Familiarise yourself and your employees with anti-discrimination and equal opportunity requirements – it’s more than just being willing to employ applicants of any race, gender or age.

2 – Have a third party review all of your advertising, policies, and procedures to see if there is an unintended bias against a particular group of people – do they see a specific ‘type’ of employee sought?

3 – Be aware of your treatment and questions to staff, to ensure that everyone is subject to the same conditions and has the same opportunities.