Is High Unemployment Driving Workplace Discrimination?

Published: Jan 12, 2011

Topics: CSR       

There were nearly 100,000 new charges of discrimination filed against employers during fiscal year 2010. This marks the highest level (7.2 percent) of new discrimination cases ever recorded, according to the latest report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Workplace Discrimination

Another startling fact: For the first time since the EEOC was instituted in 1995, charges of employer retaliations outnumbered racial discrimination charges, reports The Wall Street Journal. And, according to the Huffington Post, roughly 20,000 of these were actually upheld, i.e., they product positive results for the complainant.

Further, the EEOC reportedly secured more than $404 million in monetary relief from employers -- the most money the commission has ever obtained through the administrative process, reports HuffPo.

There are several easily-explained reasons for this increase, with a strained economy playing primary defaulter.

Disability Discrimination

According to CNBC, "The largest increase was from people who said they had been discriminated against because of a disability, an increase that may be linked to recent changes in the legal definition of disability to make it more expansive."

Another contributing factor has been the increased level of interest show by President Obama's team toward workplace discrimination. In fact, one of his first initiatives back in 2009 was to launch—a website that provides a whole gamut of information on subjects such as disability laws, rights, employment help, how to apply for benefits, arranging transportation, etc. for people with disabilities.

Layoffs & Workplace Discrimination

Mike Vanatta was laid off in January, 2010 from his $100,000-a-year job as a sales executive for a turf company. And with savings of just $5,000, he's on a budget for the first time. In April, he will start taking Social Security at age 62.

But the biggest reason is a continuing economic downturn and persistent layoffs across sectors.

"The uptick in EEOC complaints is directly correlated to the downtick in employment. The people who think they’re discriminated against when they’re not terminated really think twice about whether they should file a charge or not because of the hassle and possibility of retaliation." So says Michael J. Zimmer, a professor of employment law at Loyola University in Chicago quoted in the CNBC report.

Zimmer also noted that "once they’re terminated, then for most of the private sector employees in this country who are at-will employees, the only way they can challenge their dismissal is by bringing a discrimination claim of some sort."

The Case for Age Diversity

Fair enough. But for jobseekers, especially those who have realized that their age might be a bigger impediment in their job search than they imagined, this increase is just more proof of the sorry state of affairs. In a decade when delaying the retirement age has become an all-encompassing national debate, this throws a unique challenge across generations.

In fact, just yesterday, U.K. broadcaster BBC lost its first-ever case of age discrimination to news anchor Miriam O'Reilly, a 53-year old presenter who had alleged that she was victimized "because of her age by management who blamed her for newspaper stories criticizing the corporation for dropping middle-aged women presenters."

For BBC, this means a six-figure payout and (hopefully) a renewed effort at some internal diversity training.

But for most other older workers, the past years' recession has meant fewer jobs, little career growth, a fast depleting basket of skill sets, and increasing competition from a burgeoning crowd of Gen-Y and millennial jobseekers.

And for most employers, the current market provides a win-win hard to resist. A younger worker means getting more—or the same—done for less. There are also employers who continue to be more receptive to accepting a trade-off of slightly poorer quality work for lesser wages.

However, it isn't all rosy for the younger generations either. Their challenge begins when the available palette of jobs requires much more industry experience than they can offer or long hours of work in exchange for low salaries and a lower standard of living than they aspire to. The result? A vicious circle of experience vs. best fit that result in mass underemployment.

And fewer voluntary retirements. But, would an earlier retirement age really solve the employment crisis?

Still surprised about the 100,000 complaints? I'm not.

The Wall Street Journal
Huffington Post