Discrimination in the workplace: Exploring the disconnect between HR and the workforce

11 April 2017 -


New research reveals HR managers are out of touch with their staff when it comes to managing promotions, and how a lack of diversity is driving people out of their jobs

Jermaine Haughton

As a new UK ruling came into force this month requiring big companies to report what they pay men and women to help encourage firms to close the gender pay gap, new research has revealed just how widespread workplace discrimination is.

Reflecting the challenges in addressing the lack of diversity in the boardrooms of FTSE 100 corporations, a new study by careers management firm Lee Hecht Harrison Penna found one in every five employees has felt discriminated against in promotion decisions.

When attempting to climb the ranks of their organisation, nearly two fifths (39%) of respondents believed their age was a defining factor in why they had been turned down for higher status or higher paying roles. This was followed by 26% of employees who stated their gender saw them discriminated against, while 22% reported their employment status, such as working part time or flexible working hours, was a barrier.

Conducted by Opinium in March, the research surveyed the opinions of 2,005 UK employees  aged 18 and over, and 102 human resources managers. Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, both parties provided significantly different perspectives.

Nearly all (94%) of the HR managers questioned believed that the promotion process at their company is handled fairly, compared to just 71% of employees.

This is despite both employees and HR professionals agreeing about the qualities that are required for a promotion to be offered. Over half (53%) of UK employees believe working hard and doing a good job are the most important reasons for a promotion, echoed by HR professionals (41%).

However, with “working hard” and “doing a good job” remaining intangible metrics, it is clear to see why 29% of employees believe the promotion process is unfair.

Nicola Sullivan, senior director at Lee Hecht Harrison Penna, said: “With our research showing nearly all (91%) of HR professionals believe their promotion processes are inclusive, there is a clear disconnect between the positive action HR professionals believe they are taking and how this is perceived by employees.

“For companies looking to bridge this gap, there is no one size fits all policy. To create a promotion process seen as fairer and more inclusive by its employees, HR professionals and senior management need to develop a unique solution tailored to the nature of both the organisation and staff.

“In some cases this could mean redesigning the process to improve assessment processes, while in others it would be retraining people managers to have effective career conversations. However, in almost all cases helping employees to understand their career options, clarify pathways and enabling them to understand what they need to do to achieve their ambitions is essential.”

Gender discrimination

Whether it be the gender pay gap, cases of sexual harassment or a lack of representation in the senior management positions of companies, the discrimination of women is a continued issue that some firms are starting to stronger attention to. The world economy is losing out on $12trillion (£9.6tn) in global GDP over the next decade as a result of gender inequality, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, with a cost £150 billion a year to the UK economy in 2025 alone.

According to the Lee Hecht Harrison Penna research, some 40% of women report they have received insufficient career guidance to enable them to progress up the ranks. Only a quarter of men (26%) said this was an problem for them.

According to CMI Women, the UK economy will need two million new managers by 2024 – and 1.5 million of these will need to be women if we are to achieve gender balance. Aimed at helping organisations embrace gender diversity and put it at the heart of their agenda and business practice, CMI Women will inspire and support women throughout their careers and provide organisations with a Blueprint for Balance so they can benefit from being a gender diverse body.


Less talked-about is the issue of ageism stifling people’s career development opportunities. Those aged between 25 and 34 feel most hard done by, according to the Lee Hecht Harrison Penna research, with 28% of this age group believing they are particular victims of discrimination during promotion decisions.

In addition to feeling wronged, they are also more likely to take proactive action - a quarter (24%) have left a job because they have been passed over for promotion, while a further 24% have left a job because the company has lacked diversity.

As well as the clear management benefits of tackling inequality, such as boosting innovation, productivity and team performance, the research shows it is also a crucial factor for most employees.

Promoting inclusivity within the workforce is a critical issue with the majority of employees (74%) stating they would consider leaving a company if it appeared to lack diversity. Two thirds (65%) of HR managers believe promoting diversity leads to a varied workforce with a range of skills and outlooks, while half (51%) do so because it is expected within today’s society.

A further half (50%) are committed to promoting diversity because it prevents claims of discrimination.

Some 70% of organisations involved in the study said they use quotas in their promotion process but 40% of employees believe more still needs to be done to tackle lack of diversity.

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