Ageism the most common form of discrimination, say employees

Three in 10 claim promotion processes are unfair – but HR is more focused on sexism, according to survey

Employees believe that ageism is the most common form of discrimination in the workplace, according to research that suggests a significant proportion of promotion decisions are viewed as unfair.

Almost four in 10 employees (39 per cent) polled by Lee Hecht Harrison Penna felt age was the most common cause of workplace inequality, ahead of gender (26 per cent) and employment status (22 per cent), which covers part-time and flexible working.

However, HR professionals who took part in the survey were most likely to say gender was the most prevalent form of discrimination in their workplace.

Overall, 20 per cent of the 2,005 UK employees surveyed felt discriminated against in promotion decisions, and 29 per cent said the promotion process at their company was unfair. By contrast, 94 per cent of HR professionals said promotion processes were fair.

Denise Keating, chief executive of the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion, said: “While some people are intrinsically unfit for promotion, and may blame their failure to be promoted on discrimination, promotion processes are one of the riskiest areas for conscious or unconscious biases to affect decision-making.

“Traditional criteria, such as whether someone fits the company itself, are often intrinsically connected to white male characteristics. One of the main causes of the lack of board diversity is a failure to cultivate a diverse talent pipeline, so it is unsurprising that discrimination is felt by those who are failing to advance.”

Employees who said promotion processes were unjust were most likely to attribute the problem to a lack of guidance on how to climb the ranks. Women were significantly more likely to feel they had not been giving sufficient career guidance, with 40 per cent reporting this as an issue compared to 26 per cent of men.

Employees and HR professionals were in agreement when it came to who deserves to be promoted. More than half (53 per cent) of staff said working hard and doing a good job were the most important criteria for promotion, a view echoed by HR professionals (41 per cent).

Seventy per cent of organisations use quotas to some extent in their promotion processes, but 40 per cent of employees said more needed to be done to tackle a lack of diversity in their workplace and 26 per cent supported positive discrimination initiatives.

Almost three-quarters (74 per cent) of employees said they would consider leaving a company if it appeared to lack diversity among its workforce. And 65 per cent of HR professionals said they felt promoting diversity leads to a varied workforce with a range of skills and outlooks, while a little over half (51 per cent) support it because it is expected within today’s society.

Nicola Sullivan, senior director at Lee Hecht Harrison Penna, said: “There is a clear disconnect between the positive action HR professionals believe they are taking and how this is perceived by employees. To create a promotion process seen as fairer and more inclusive by its employees, HR professionals and senior management need to develop a unique solution tailored to the nature of both the organisation and staff.”

She added that, in some cases, this could mean employers having to redesign their recruitment and promotion process, while in others it could mean retraining people managers to have effective career conversations: “In almost all cases, helping employees to understand their career options, clarify pathways and enabling them to understand what they need to do to achieve their ambitions is essential.”

In January, separate research found that half of employees aged 45 and over believed that workplaces ‘naturally cater towards younger employees’. Half said they were worried about their future in the workplace.