Unfair treatment at work could occur for myriad reasons. An employee could be a victim of unfair treatment due to discrimination but it could also be other reasons such as an incident that happened. This type of behaviour can frustrate the victim, alienate them and potentially divide the workplace intro groups. A big percentage of employees, especially those coming from a minority group, have experienced or still experience unfair treatment in the form of discrimination. Unfortunately, for the employee, unfair treatment is usually not a temporary situation. The longer the employer avoids confronting the staff members who are causing it, the more it will spread and create a culture where such incidents are not reported. 

What counts as unfair treatment?

There are many examples of unfair treatment at work. It could be an employee not being promoted when they clearly deserve it because of a personal characteristic, or them not being invited out with other employees. Another example could be unfair treatment as a result of retaliation. A manager may not communicate effectively with an employee after they reported them for an incident. They may be harsher or unjust, failing to give them constructive feedback while treating their colleagues better.

Other examples include:

  • Not giving the right salary increases 
  • Spreading false rumours
  • Harassment 
  • Giving them unwanted tasks
  • Not providing the employee with training opportunities 

Recognising unfair treatment is the first step in knowing how to report it. For the employer, it’s the first step in developing strategies to prevent it. 

Addressing unfair treatment 

Employers have a responsibility to control and prevent unfair treatment. It is crucial that action is taken as quickly as possible to prevent the issue from spreading or getting worse. Depending on the situation and how widespread the issue is, the company may take the following steps:

  • Document incidents 
  • Speak with staff
  • Conduct investigations
  • Create stronger policies
  • Provide training 
  • Lead by example
unfair treatment

Document incidents 

After identifying incidents of an employee being mistreated or receiving a report, the manager or employer should reach out to the employee to obtain more information.

  • What happened?
  • When did it occur?
  • Where did it take place?
  • Who was involved?
  • Has it occurred in the past?
  • Does the employee have any other relevant information?

Documenting the incident makes it easier to keep track of the events that occurred and understand the problem. Employers can keep track of those involved and develop a plan on how to approach the situation. Documenting is also important to establish a chain of events and what actions the company took to resolve the issue. Building a case and recording all instances is also beneficial if an investigator ends up being involved as it can be a reminder. Details can be forgotten after a while so employees should be encouraged to either share events with the HR manager or keep a diary of their own. 

Speak with staff

It would be ideal for the problem to be resolved by communicating with all parties involved and reaching an agreement. Encourage the employees to speak to their manager or HR staff if they feel unfairly treated so they can set up a meeting and talk about the situation. Having someone there who can mediate and provide solutions can be helpful in reaching a favourable outcome for all parties. The HR team could assist by guiding the conversation with questions but leaving parts of the conversation to the employees to discuss and navigate themselves. 

For example, they could ask:

  • How did you feel during this incident?
  • Have you tried to discuss this with them?
  • What do you want to do going forward?

Unfair treatment may not be obvious all the time. Sometimes, it can be indirect so it is important to ask open-ended questions that will result in a longer explanation. If this process fails or the incident is more severe, an investigation may be required. 

Conduct investigations

After an incident of unfair treatment has been reported, the employer has a duty to investigate it and ensure procedural fairness throughout the process. The employer should provide adequate support to both parties and inform them of what their rights are before, during and after the investigation. An external investigator may be required to keep the investigation impartial and make sure that employee rights are not breached. 

The rights of employee include but are not limited to:

  • Right to privacy
  • Right to a fair process
  • Right to appeal 
  • Right to equal treatment

The size of the investigation and the resources allocated to it will depend on the severity of the unfair treatment and how many people it has affected. Evidence such as interviews, CCTV, messages or work-related documents such as performance reviews can be necessary in an unfair treatment investigation. These will all help investigators reach a conclusion and provide findings based on facts rather than emotions. 

During the investigation, the investigator may need to deal with employment lawyers, union representatives or the government, so it would be preferred that the chosen investigator has experience in similar scenarios in the past. The employee may engage with government bodies who may be involved to conduct their own investigation.

Create stronger policies

Policies set the expectations on what behaviour is allowed in the workplace. Unfair treatment could be the result of weak policies that are not enforced or unaccessible. Policies may be viewed simply as documents. However, they are very effective in setting the consequences that will follow if unfair treatment is identified. A strong policy should:

  • Define unfair treatment
  • Explain what unfair treatment can look like
  • Describe what is not unfair treatment
  • How the company will respond to unfair treatment

For example, a policy may explain how being excluded from employee events is an example of unfair treatment but constructive criticism on poor performance is not. The policies are created to discourage unfair treatment while protecting normal management conduct, and enforcing them shows employees that misconduct will not go unnoticed or unpunished. In the case where unfair treatment is happening intentionally, then policies serve as a reminder that the workplace has zero-tolerance against behaviour that could impact employees negatively. Policies should be reviewed regularly, especially if an incident occurs that was not covered by them. 

Provide training

There are situations where employees treat others unfairly without realising it. This could be for a number of reasons including previous work culture, upbringing, culture etc. Training can highlight to all employees how their actions can affect others and what is allowed in the workplace. Training can bring up scenarios of unfair treatment to encourage employees to think about whether this is something they have done in the past. It can change the way they think and what they consider appropriate or inappropriate behaviour. A diverse workplace needs diverse perspectives. Training can be beneficial in creating discussions among colleagues on how they would handle certain situations and how they would avoid causing others to feel uncomfortable. 

Bringing someone external to conduct the training is recommended as an external individual will have their own experiences, will bring new ideas into the workplace and could conduct a more interactive training session. Encouraging the HR team to bring someone who talks about values similar to the ones the company holds can be more effective in setting expectations of what is right or not. 

Lead by example

Just like with most things, leadership can set an example of what actions are appropriate and which ones are not. Employees in leadership positions should express their feelings on unfair treatment and quote policies on what the expectations are for every employee. It would be worthwhile for them to share their own experiences and advise staff on what to do if they experience unfair treatment. Leaders expressing this type of support is very beneficial and can encourage employees to speak up and voice their worries and problems. 

A culture where leaders show respect to one another and extend the same respect to other employees sets an example for how people should act. Think about it. If your manager or CEO was in charge of fair work initiatives, wouldn’t that disincentivise staff from mistreating their colleagues? A strong and collaborative work culture is built from above. 

Can we help?

At Polonious, we always look for ways to help investigators achieve a faster and more efficient process. We automate workflows, provide them with one-tap reporting and reduce admin headaches. Our system focuses on reducing both investigation costs and time, helping employees focus on core business tasks to minimise operational disruptions. Do you want to know more? Reach out and book a demo!