First published: January 24th, 2018
Last updated: November 25th, 2022
Employers’ anti-discrimination obligations are set out in the Employment Equality Acts 1998- 2015.
This legislation prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on nine specific grounds. These employment equality laws also prohibit sexual harassment or harassment linked to any of the nine grounds.
It’s important to be proactive in preventing discrimination in your workplace as it is no defence to claim that you are not responsible for the discriminatory acts of your staff.
You may be found vicariously liable for the discriminatory acts of employees if you haven’t taken the right precautions to prevent workplace discrimination.
What is discrimination?
Discrimination happens when you treat someone less favourably because of who they are. In Irish law, the Employment Equality Acts 1998–2015 state that employers will be guilty of discrimination if one person has been treated less favourably in the workplace than another person in a similar situation based on any of the nine grounds below:
- Civil status: Single, married, divorced, etc.
- Family status: If you’re the parent or person responsible for a child over 18, or if you’re the main carer or parent of a person with a disability
- Sexual orientation
- Being a member of the Traveller community
If you deny someone a promotion based on one of the characteristics above for instance, that’s discrimination. If you single someone out for criticism or mockery based on any of the above characteristics, that would be discrimination. If you pay someone less than another person in the same position based on any of the above characteristics, that would be a clear case of discrimination.
The damaging effects of discrimination
The consequences of workplace discrimination can be devastating for both employees and employers. From the employee’s perspective, discrimination creates a hostile environment. This can cause both physical and psychological damage to the employee. Staff may dread coming into work and start taking more days off sick or turning up late to avoid the torment. If one employee is receiving unfair treatment, this can also have a negative effect on their co-workers and lead to lower morale and productivity.
The financial consequences of discrimination
Discrimination in the workplace also involves serious financial risk.
If you have a small to medium-sized company, it’s unlikely that you can afford to take time off to attend a Workplace Relations Commission hearing or to pay thousands of euros in settlements and solicitors’ fees.
If you are found to have discriminated against an employee, your business is exposed to compensation claims of up to 2 years' remuneration. Compensation in gender-based discrimination cases is uncapped and these claims extend to pregnancy-related discrimination.
In 2015, the Equality Tribunal ordered retail giants Marks & Spencer to pay €40,000 to a former employee. Four years prior, M&S had dismissed the employee after she was diagnosed with severe tendonitis, a painful foot condition. The tribunal ruled that the company had discriminated against the employee based on disability.
Non-employees can be victims of discrimination too
It is commonly believed that only existing staff are protected against workplace discrimination under the equality legislation. It’s just as important to remember that protection against discrimination extends to jobseekers too.
Let’s say you post a job advert stating that candidates must be male, under 30 years old and in good physical shape.
Unless you can prove that there is objective justification for requiring candidates to have these attributes, you could face an order to pay compensation of up to €13,000. You must ensure you word any job adverts you post in a way that doesn’t exclude any candidates on the basis of any of the nine grounds.
This also extends to the interview process. It’s illegal to ask an interviewee about their age, sexual orientation, or any of the other nine grounds. A good rule of thumb is to only ask questions that are relevant to the role.
Prevention is better than cure
One of the best ways to prevent workplace discrimination is to address the subject in your employee handbook—a useful reference guide that you should hand out to all new starters.
Let your employees know that you take discrimination seriously, and outline a grievance procedure they can follow if they feel they’re being victimised.
It’s also a good idea to provide regular training to management to ensure that they are prepared to handle any issues around discrimination that arise.
Prevent discrimination in your workplace
As an employer, you may be held liable for any acts of discrimination committed by one of your employees, and even third parties (such as service users, contractors and other business contacts) in the course of their employment.
The only way to successfully defend claims of unfair treatment is to demonstrate that you have taken all reasonably practicable steps to prevent discrimination in your workplace.
This means you will need to ensure that your anti-discrimination policies, procedures and staff training are regularly updated to comply with all relevant employment equality laws and codes of practice.
For further complimentary advice on preventing discrimination in your workplace, call your Peninsula expert advisor on 1800 719 230.