This article was commissioned by the MRS Diversity, Inclusion & Equality Council and written by Judith Staig, founder of ContentWrite, with thanks to sponsorship from:

If you’ve been working from home for the last year or so, you may now be yearning for office life. For many of us, time at work – whether in real life or online - can offer a refreshing change from time at home: somewhere to socialise with colleagues, have a break from family or housemates, and enjoy being in a professional environment where you will be treated respectfully and according to the social norms of the workplace.

But what if your workplace isn’t so welcoming? What if you have to put up with discrimination and inappropriate behaviour? Or you witness this type of behaviour affecting others? The latest annual survey into DI&E by MRS shows that more than half of people who took part[1] have experienced or witnessed some form of overt discrimination[2]

This is bad enough, but what is even worse is that less than half of people who witnessed or experienced discrimination or inappropriate behaviour reported it. This is primarily because people don’t trust the process of escalation, and also because they fear that it could affect their career.

Furthermore, only about a third of people who did report their concerns were satisfied with the way in which the situation was handled. This implies that people are right to have no trust in the process and demonstrates that structural change is needed. Bases are low, but the data suggests that people from ethnic minority backgrounds, women and people aged under 35 or over 65 were least likely to be satisfied with the outcome of their complaint. 

The verbatim responses to the survey shed more light on why people are reluctant to report discrimination. In some cases it’s because it’s not clear whether what happened really was discrimination. There’s often no evidence and the injured parties aren’t sure whether what happened is significant enough to count. In other cases it’s not just one incident but a multitude, each too small to report on their own, but adding up over time.

Given the lack of trust in the process, and fear and worry around reporting, it’s sadly unsurprising that so many people are experiencing or witnessing discrimination and inappropriate behaviour – it is going on largely unchecked. If you’re not personally experiencing or noticing this in your workplace, you may have struck it lucky and be working somewhere great, or you may not be noticing it because it has become normalised. Check out this ‘Day in the Life’ of a researcher, inspired by verbatim responses to the MRS survey, for an insight into what some people have to suffer.

As an industry, we are failing people in minoritised groups. The structures for reporting discrimination aren’t as robust as they should be, the culture in some of our companies normalises micro-aggressions, and people don’t always speak up as they fear the impact on their career.

This has to be addressed both from the top down and the bottom up. Leaders must put robust and reliable structures in place that make people feel safe to report, and confident that they will be heard. And they must also work on the organisational culture if it normalises a discriminatory environment. But as individuals we have a part to play too.  We can take action today to ensure that we – and our colleagues - feel safe to report discrimination, and are more satisfied with the outcomes when we do.

  1. We can educate ourselves about our rights. Organisations such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, ACAS and Citizens Advice have lots of information on how to challenge discrimination at work. If you need help and support, the MRS also offers guidance in each of these areas:

     - Dealing with discriminatory comments
    -  Bullying and harassment
    - Whistleblowing 

    Being informed is empowering. There is a lot you can do before needing to make a formal complaint; these resources can be a good starting point in helping you decide what action to take.
  1. We can be allies. If our colleagues tell us they are suffering discrimination we can listen and support them in whatever way would be useful to them. But we can also be allies when our colleagues aren’t present. If you in a group of men and someone makes a sexist remark, you can tell them it isn’t cool. A good way to do this is to ask them to explain what they mean. If you’re not sure if it’s a sexist remark, ask yourself if you would say the same thing to your mother, sister, partner, female friend or colleague. If not, then it’s probably not an OK thing to say. If you are in a group of white people and someone makes a racist remark – same thing. Challenging offensive remarks can be very uncomfortable, but it’s necessary as this is how we start to dismantle a culture of everyday prejudice. This article has some great tips on how to call out micro-aggressions effectively, without making the perpetrator so defensive that they can’t hear what you are saying.

  2. We can align ourselves with our colleagues when we witness discrimination. In the survey, 14% of people who didn’t report said they didn’t feel it was their place to do so – which may well have been the case. But when we see harassment in public, we are advised that we don’t have to confront the perpetrator ourselves; instead we can check in with the person who is being picked on to see if they are ok, find out what help they would like, and stand by them to show the perpetrator that the person is not alone. We can do all of this in the workplace too. Elie Wiesel, writer and Holocaust survivor, said “What hurts the victim the most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander.”

  3. We can start from a positioning of believing people, enable them to self-report and not put the onus on them to demonstrate that what happened really was discriminatory. If somebody feels like they have been badly treated, the chances are that they have. Part of being an ally is educating ourselves and becoming more aware of what discrimination and inappropriate behaviour might include. Something that seems like a joke or a throwaway remark to one person can be deeply wounding, frightening or offensive to somebody else. The survey shows that people are reluctant to report, so it’s not that likely that people will risk their jobs unless what they have experienced really is unacceptable to them.

  4. We can join – or start – support groups or networks at work. MRSpride, CORe, WIRe and &More are great places to begin. Find out if your organisation has a DI&E group as this can be a good place to discuss issues before making a more formal complaint. If it doesn’t, ask “why not?” Start one. You might find that your colleagues are grateful that these issues are getting recognition and starting to be addressed.

We are making great leaps forward in our industry. The latest MRS conference was the most diverse ever. The MRS Inclusion Pledge goes from strength to strength, with more and more companies signing up. But discrimination and inappropriate behaviour are still commonplace. We must be sure we can recognise such behaviours, know what options are open to us, and take steps to show that this will not be tolerated. We will not leave our colleagues, clients, suppliers and friends to suffer alone.

[1] In 6+ employee companies

[2] By overt discrimination we mean discriminatory behaviour that is observable in personal interactions: in attitudes, languages, facial expressions, tone of voice, exclusionary behaviours, harassment, bullying or other means of demeaning a person based on their protected characteristics.

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