What is unfair treatment?

Treating someone in your staff unfairly because of who they are is discrimination. It can lead to them feeling upset, shamed, and even scared.

When this happens, you can expect their morale and their productivity levels to plummet. Academic studies have found that treating staff in an unfair way can drain them of energy and motivation.

Not good for results. Not good for your business.

You might even see absence levels rise. For some employees, feigning illness to stay off work will seem like a better option than facing a stressful situation that leaves them feeling mistreated.

When is treatment unfair?

It's illegal to treat somebody in an unfair way, including harassment, because of any of their protected characteristics:

  • Age.
  • Disability.
  • Gender reassignment.
  • Marriage and civil partnership.
  • Maternity and pregnancy.
  • Race.
  • Religion or belief.
  • Sex.
  • Sexual orientation.

It isn't illegal to engage in behaviour that we often know as bullying, though. For example, ridiculing somebody because of their clothes or their outside interests. But it's still bullying, and it can have a strong negative effect on a person.

It's up to you and your staff to lead the way in enforcing a zero-tolerance policy towards bullying.

Unfair treatment in the workplace examples

Unfair treatment happens up and down the chain of command.

Examples of unfair treatment at work can include:

  • Spreading rumours about an employee.
  • Overlooking someone for a promotion for no good reason.
  • Making offensive comments, emails, or social media posts to or about someone.
  • Excusing such comments in the name of 'banter'.
  • Making someone's life difficult with unfair criticism and menial tasks.
  • Demotion, transfer, or dismissal without a fair disciplinary procedure.

Unfair treatment at work due to illness

If any of your staff have a disability or a mental health condition, you should take reasonable steps to try to make their job easier for them.

For example, can you make changes to the office workstation for a disabled employee?

Also, make sure all of your staff know that taking a sick day for a mental health condition is just as valid as something like flu or a physical injury.

You might find that people in these situations need to take more sick days off than other staff, due to the issues they face day-to-day. Again, you should take steps, where you can, to allow for these illnesses. Otherwise, you risk facing a disability discrimination claim.

How to control and prevent unfair treatment

You should let all staff know that you operate anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies. Put these policies in your staff handbook and make sure all staff get a copy when they start.

Whenever you update a policy, email the new version to your teams.

Set out behaviours that you won't tolerate, and explain the procedures that you'll go through if you need to investigate a possible case of unfair treatment. On the other side, outline the standards that you expect of your employees, including senior staff. Including you.

Also, make clear in the handbook what someone must do if they want to report an incident or raise a grievance, and keep everything confidential.

The grievance procedure

You are responsible for the health and the safety of your staff. But you must also always act reasonably when finding the underlying cause of an allegation. When an employee comes to you with a grievance, hold a hearing to work out the details of their grievance.

Then investigate their claims, and come to an outcome.

The disciplinary procedure

Time for the procedure that will shape what action you take.

So, when investigating a case for unfair treatment, speak to all possible witnesses, gather the facts of the case, and try to work out why the treatment is happening.

Follow up with a hearing and try to resolve the problem between the parties.

The outcome might be that you give the offender a written warning. Or a final written warning if they've failed to improve their conduct after an initial warning.

In cases where you deem the unfair treatment to be gross misconduct, you might decide to dismiss the employee.

Remember, you must always go through fair procedures.

Lead from the front

Enlist the help of your senior staff to set the example. If team leaders behave in line with the values of your business, their conduct will rub off on the rest of your staff.

However, if the leaders in your workplace are being slack with standards, you should expect others to think they can get away with an unfair comment here and there, too.