Discrimination at work: forms and prevention

Employers have duties to their employees. This includes protection against discrimination. This can take many different forms and is not felt by everyone in the same way but can be very stressful. Especially in the professional environment, there are power structures that make incidents complex: A tense and stressful work situation arises. Prevention offers room for a trustful corporate culture where everyone feels comfortable and safe. But how can cases of discrimination be prevented?

Discrimination occurs when someone is excluded or mistreated on the basis of belonging to a certain group or because of individual characteristics. This begins at management level. Paying a woman less for the same work as her male team-mate, preferring certain people when approving holidays - examples of discriminating management decisions. Incorrect planning of office space can also exclude people. Stairs instead of elevators, narrow corridors, thresholds between rooms, narrow toilets: these obstacles exclude people with disabilities from participating equally in working life. Barrier-free office space is not simply "nice to have", but is regulated by law in the Federal Act on the Elimination of Discrimination against People with Disabilities (https://www.admin.ch/opc/en/classified-compilation/20002658/index.html).

Discrimination in everyday life

Discrimination is often caused by the team in everyday office life. If a group always goes for lunch together without inviting the others, this can (whether intended or not) exclude colleagues and create a bad atmosphere in the workforce. Gossip, mockery, as well as targeted discrimination and snide comments based on gender, sexual orientation, political views, origin, religion, physical appearance or age, can be very gruelling for those affected and make the walk to work a real torment.

When a part of the team or the entire team systematically harasses a person, it is called bullying. Bullying situations are extremely stressful for those affected and can cause severe psychological problems. Discrimination becomes criminal when abuses or assaults occur. Here, the range extends from offensive remarks to physical assaults.

Team: Between conflict and friendship

A mean remark or a joke at the expense of team members can quickly be dropped. Even though this can have its place in a friendly, relaxed working atmosphere, there are boundaries that must not be crossed. They are particularly important in cases of physical contact. Because even if you are close to each other - every person has a different approach to closeness and distance. Some people find it too much to touch another person by mistake; others find it normal to touch another person's shoulder or even hug them with the famous three kisses to welcome them.

If you work closely with others and spend more than eight hours a day together, you inevitably cultivate interpersonal contacts. It is normal that sympathies and antipathies towards individual colleagues arise. These feelings can take different forms. It is essential that the behavior of all those involved remains professional.

When discrimination meets a culture of silence

Where people work, personal notes resonate. Thus, the perceived discrimination is also personal. But it is a fact that discrimination leads to a great deal of suffering among those affected and makes them no longer want to go to work. But how do affected people react? Conditions of employment always create power structures. Employees don't want to make themselves unpopular, don't want to ruin their career prospects, feel powerless against their superiors or don't want to make themselves unpopular as a new team member by resisting. Often, this leads to a culture of silence accepting discrimination silently. The combination of a culture of silence and discrimination creates a working environment in which employees - even those not directly affected - feel uncomfortable. In the long term, this has a negative impact on the atmosphere and thus also on team productivity. So how can discrimination at work be avoided? And who can be contacted if discrimination becomes a burden or if assaults occur?

Prevent and combat

The following points create a basis for a trusting corporate culture and help to minimize discrimination in companies:

  • Create equality and inclusion: No matter whether in the application process, wages or accessibility in the offices - no one should have worse working conditions than other employees because of their gender, sexual orientation, origin, disability or other factors.
  • Establish rules: Managers are responsible for ensuring that there is no discrimination and they can clearly define the rules for working together.
  • Communicate boundaries clearly: Employees can also take action against discrimination by immediately and explicitly addressing any violations of boundaries. Perhaps someone is not aware that a border is being crossed.
  • Create a point of contact with a person of trust: Precisely because boundaries often cannot be communicated openly - for example to managers - or this is also associated with fear, it helps if an independent person (e.g. in HR) receives complaints and checks facts in a protected setting. In addition, there are external arbitration and advice centers that can be contacted (ch.ch/en/labour-disputes/)
  • Help: Victims of discrimination have a right to receive help and, if necessary, compensation.
  • Sanction: Warnings, transfers or dismissals, and a zero-tolerance culture for serious incidents.
  • Take legal action in the event of criminal acts: If criminal acts are committed, criminal law measures can be taken. Victims also have rights on behalf of their employer (e.g. compensation).
  • Clarify: Presentations, training, courses and webinars help to raise awareness of discrimination, point out limits and improve knowledge about different social groups.


Author: Doris Fink