As news hits the headlines that the gender pay gap hasn’t budged since last year, revelations of bad practice at some of the world’s ‘smartest’ organisations suggests the pay gap might be the tip of a toxic iceberg. While it seems that gender-based discrimination is still rife, it’s by no means the only form of workplace discrimination up for discussion. Many recent studies have emphasised how important it is for employees to feel valued, protected and fairly treated by their employers, and how this will affect an organisation’s ability to attract talent and survive in a competitive market. The sheer number of cases coming to light indicates the true extent of a problem that has always existed, but that employees are no longer willing to put up with in exchange for their paycheck.
What’s surprising is that many of these recent cases concern respected organisations that we automatically associate with setting a ‘good’ example. While it could be true that controversy surrounding well-known companies makes for good headlines, the severity of many of these cases means that we should take them seriously. US based firm The Markup recently found itself under fire for ranking applicants according to their social class. The media firm, which reports on how companies are using new technology, has all the credentials of a new age company with a modern mission. Founded by individuals from the Wall Street Journal, Wikimedia and Craigslist, it had raised tens of millions of pounds in start-up support. Yet amidst hiring and firing controversies, spreadsheets emerged showing that job applicants were ranked according to whether the interviewer thought they were from working class, middle class or privileged backgrounds. While social class obviously has no bearing on an applicant’s ability, what’s even more disturbing is that the spreadsheet showed that none of the selected candidates were from working class or deprived backgrounds.
While its long been suspected that certain top educational institutions favour candidates from privileged backgrounds, there’s evidence to suggest that institutionalised class bias frequently carries over to the workplace. In 2017, the Social Mobility Commission found that, in the UK, there’s an average pay gap of £7,000 in favour of those from privileged backgrounds. Although the issue of class discrimination has been looked into by the Government, it’s difficult to prove that this is the reason a candidate hasn’t been considered or is paid less. Subsequently, there’s no specific legislation within the Equality Act 2010 to protect employees against it. Even within firms that actively promote social diversity within their recruitment policy, such as PwC, the reality is that working-class candidates might struggle to progress once they’re through the door. In an interview given to the Financial Times, Louise Ashley, a lecturer at the University of London commented on the discrepancy between what firms preach and what they actually practice:
“There is very limited focus on the relationship between social background and career progression”. Many firms have a strong discourse of meritocracy, but as you attempt to climb the pyramid, you see it isn’t true.”
The ongoing case of The Markup shows how those less privileged can face unfair discrimination in the workplace, especially when it comes to the upper bastions of business that often operate like an old boys club of public school contacts and nepotism. Perhaps it’s such outdated class attitudes that also leads to questionable attitudes regarding gender pay gaps and harassment policies.
In March, it was announced that the BBC is to be formally investigated by the equality watchdog over claims that men are consistently paid more than women for doing the same job. This has been illegal since the Equal Pay Act was introduced in 1970. Concerns about wage disparity at the BBC first made headlines in 2017 when the organisation was forced to publish the salaries of employees earning more than £150,000 a year, showing for the first time how many men were paid substantially more than their female equivalents. However, many BBC staff claim gender pay inequality remains a widespread problem at lower wage bands throughout the organisation that were never made public. The investigation, which aims to conclude by the end of the year, will also look at whether men benefit unfairly in terms of shift rates, allowances, pensions, bonuses, sick pay, redundancy and unfair dismissal compensation awards.
Perhaps the most surprising of recent cases is that of Google. The media giant faces multiple allegations ranging from gender pay inequality to serious allegations of harassment. In November 2018, staff at Google’s offices around the world staged a series of walkouts in protest of the company’s misconduct. Some 50 employees, many reported to be at senior managerial level, were subsequently sacked for sexual harassment following an investigative report that Google CEO Sundar Pichai admitted was “difficult to read”. Despite this, workers who had protested revealed that they had suffered a backlash of bullying, veiled threats and demotions. One of those involved commented:
“Google has a culture of retaliation, which too often works to silence women, people of colour, and gender minorities. If we want to stop discrimination, harassment, and unethical decision-making, we need to end retaliation against the people who speak honestly about these problems.”
Perhaps one of the most bizarre allegations to surface was the revelation that Google “openly shames” managers who fail to meet targets, even booing them at meetings. When such openly toxic behaviour becomes institutionalised, it’s surely a sign that workplace policies need to change in order to protect employees. Many companies handle complaints through a forced arbitration clause written into their employees’ contracts. This means that any disputes are dealt with internally rather than through other methods such as the courts. However, critics of forced arbitration say it’s used to not only protect the reputations of both the company and the accused, but also to silence victims by closing rank against them. Although these cases are shocking, it’s perhaps a sign of the times that, no matter how prestigious the organisation, those that disregard their staff welfare are being openly named, shamed and held answerable.
Workplace culture is becoming an increasingly important benchmark for organisations wanting to attract top talent. Both contractors and employees can add value to their services by developing ‘cultural awareness’ and soft skills that complement their professional qualifications. Read our article for more information about the most talked about soft skills in 2019.