Unfair treatment and discrimination at work

The Department of Trade and Industry recently published an analysis of how employees are treated at work. Most employees did not believe that they or others had encountered unfair treatment, but those that did generally considered this to be discrimination.

In June 2006, the UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) published an analysis of Britain’s first large-scale official survey of unfair treatment, perceived discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace. The report, Fair treatment at work survey 2005: Executive summary (149Kb PDF), draws on data from a survey involving home-based, face-to-face interviews with 3,936 employees across Great Britain between November 2005 and January 2006. The results were weighted to reflect the composition of British employees.

Experience of unfair treatment

Around 1.7 million employees, or 6.9% of all employees, perceived that they had personally been treated unfairly at work at some point in the last two years. This was more likely for employees with a disability or long-term illness, at 15.1%, and for black people, at 12.5%. Relatively small differences were found according to employee age, sex, religion or sector. The most commonly cited forms of unfair treatment were: ‘type of work given’ (reported by 21% of those noting unfair treatment), working hours (17%), ‘being ignored’ (15%) and pay (13%).

Discrimination at work

Overall, seven out of every 10 employees who felt that they had been treated unfairly at work, corresponding to 4.9% of all employees, considered this to be discrimination. Focusing on the six equality strands covered or soon to be covered by UK law – sex, race, disability, religion, sexual orientation and age – 3.5% of all employees felt that they had experienced discrimination at work in the last two years (see Table).

Personal experience of discrimination at work in last two years (%)
Personal experience of discrimination at work in last two years (%)
Equality strand Men Women White Non white Total
Disability 1.4 0.9 1.3 0.4 1.2
Sex 0.5 1.4 1.0 0.7 0.9
Race or ethnic group 1.0 0.6 0.4 4.0 0.8
Age 0.9 0.8 0.9 0.7 0.8
Religion 0.3 0.2 0.2 1.1 0.2
Sexual orientation * * * - *
All types of discrimination at work 3.6 3.5 3.3 5.6 3.5

Note: * = fewer than 10 cases, - = nil response. Number of survey respondents=3,936.

Source: DTI Fair treatment at work survey 2005


Almost one million employees, or 3.8% of all employees, stated that they had personally experienced bullying or harassment in the workplace in the last two years. Women (4.9%) were more likely to have been bullied than men (2.8%), although the latter were more likely to experience bullying on an ongoing basis – 74% compared with 45% for women.

More than one in 10 employees with a disability or long-term illness maintained that they were bullied or harassed in the last two years. Reported bullying was twice as prevalent in the public sector compared with the private sector. Overall, nearly two thirds, or 64%, of employees who had been bullied sought advice; however, only one quarter of black employees did so.

Sexual harassment

Relatively few employees (0.9%) experienced sexual harassment at work in the last two years. Of these, 41% were men. Less than half (44%) of employees who had been sexually harassed sought advice or information, with women more likely than men to seek advice.


As the report notes, the results ‘paint a mixed picture’. A lower incidence of overall unfair treatment at work was found than in other UK employee surveys (see, for example UK0611019I); a survey comparison will be included in the DTI’s main report, due to be published in the summer of 2007. However, the higher incidence of unfair treatment in certain workplaces and among specific employee groups raises concerns, and prompted the report writers to suggest that ‘a targeted approach to government awareness, information and enforcement of equality and discrimination laws is likely to prove more effective than broad-based approaches’.

Further information

For further information at European level, see the EWCO topic report, Violence, bullying and harassment in the workplace (TN0406TR01).

Jane Parker, University of Warwick

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