What kind of employees experienced more unreasonable treatment?

One group of employees stood out as being far more likely to receive unreasonable treatment: employees who had impairments, including learning difficulties, or had a long-term serious health condition such as cancer or heart disease or, indeed, diabetes or clinical depression. We shall now describe this group as employees with disabilities. This group also stood out in the FTWS conducted on behalf of the UK government shortly after the BWBS (see Fevre et al. 2009), and for the same reason. In both surveys, the relationship between having disabilities and being unreasonably treated was beyond doubt, and the increased risk of being unfairly treated was substantial. At this point it may be tempting to conclude that this is a problem for a small minority. While employees with disabilities made up a minority of our sample, the proportion of the workforce with disabilities rises with age and, since we shall all, with luck, become older workers one day it may not be wise to write off the plight of employees with disabilities as someone else's problem.

When we simply compare those who had disabilities with those who did not, it becomes clear that some subgroups of workers with disabilities were more likely to suffer unreasonable treatment than others. Figure 5 shows that employees with physical and other health conditions were significantly more likely to be associated with unreasonable treatment than the non-disabled, but it was those with psychological problems and learning difficulties who had the most problems. Figure 6 shows what the relationships were when controlled for other factors. The association between having a disability and being unreasonably treated does not disappear, but it does become much more specific. For example, employees with psychological problems and learning difficulties were four times as likely to be treated unfairly, and employees with other health problems (those long-term conditions including the life-threatening ones) were seven times more likely to say they have been pressured to not claim something to which they were entitled (perhaps sick leave or sick pay).

What kind of employees experienced more unreasonable treatment?

Figure 5 Unreasonable treatment of employees with disabilities

What kind of employees experienced more unreasonable treatment?

Figure 6 Different types of unreasonable treatment of employees with disabilities

It is possible that some of these relationships may be the result of 'health effects', meaning employees acquired their impairments or health problems as an effect of the unreasonable treatment they had received. For example, the imposition of unmanageable workloads or impossible deadlines might have affected the mental health of some employees. In a paper which discusses the situation of disabled employees in detail (Fevre et al. forthcoming), we explain that there is often a vicious spiral of ill-treatment and health problems, and it may often be a thankless task to determine which of these originally caused the other. The situation may also be complicated in some cases by the possibility that employees with health problems may be more likely to perceive behaviour as ill-treatment because of what psychologists call 'negative affect'. Someone with clinical depression, for example, may be more likely to perceive certain treatment more unreasonable than a colleague who experiences the same treatment but does not have depression. All these finer points aside, Figures 5 and 6 suggest that some employees with disabilities were simply being treated unreasonably.

If some disabled employees were very much more likely to be unreasonably treated, should we naturally assume that this was an expression of stigma and a form of discrimination (Walker and Fincham 2011)? Only a very small number of the people with disabilities in our sample considered their impairment or ill-health was a factor causing their experiences of any kind of ill-treatment at work. This was despite the fact that they could 'tick all that apply' when citing factors they felt to be contributing towards their ill-treatment. Workers with disabilities, like the majority of other types of workers in our sample, were most likely to attribute their ill-treatment to the nature of the workplace, for example, citing, 'It's just the way things are at work.'

Like the employees in our survey, we do not think that most of the unreasonable treatment we discovered was the result of managers and employers targeting people with disabilities or chronic illness in workplace hate crimes. We agree with them that most unreasonable treatment follows from a failure to accommodate people with disabilities and chronic illness in the workplace, but we are not convinced that this has nothing to do with stigma and discrimination. Some stigmatisation certainly occurred at the point when employers failed to accommodate employees who had such conditions. This was not stigmatisation of them for their disabilities but rather for their failure to meet their employers' expectations, for example, of their work and attendance (Walker and Fincham 2011). We think this is why items like pressured not to claim due entitlements, being continually checked up on and one's employer failing to follow proper procedures loomed so large in this analysis.

We have already noted that those with 'other' disabilities or health conditions – like cancer, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart disease, pulmonary conditions, asthma and digestive/bowel disorders – were seven times more likely to say that they had been pressured not to claim something they were are entitled to. They were also nearly three times more likely to report someone was continually checking up on them. Both employees with 'other' disabilities or conditions, and those with psychological conditions, were three times as likely as the non-disabled to say their employer had not followed proper procedures. Earlier in this chapter, we suggested that, for some workers, the experience of unreasonable treatment might be combined with what they felt to be a denial of their qualities, values and needs. We think this is particularly likely to be the case amongst such employees. Their complaints about entitlement, about checking up, and about procedures may refer, in part, to just such issues, for example, to an employer applying the most rigid interpretation of their sickness absence policy to a long-serving employee who was, up to this point in their lives, considered invaluable.

In one example from the qualitative case studies, a Britscope worker had recovered from breast cancer but suffered a collapsed lung and pneumonia. She forced herself to go back to work before being issued an official warning. Like many employers, Britscope have a policy of dismissing when three warnings have been issued to staff about absence. This woman told us you never knew what was going to happen in the future so you did not want to incur a warning unnecessarily:

I knew I hadn't been very well and I'd been to the doctor and they knew I had something. I didn't actually know it was that bad and … they gave me a sick note … for a week, but I went back before that … had run out because I thought I don't want to get a warning. And of course I went to work and then they realised that I've come back and said, 'well you are still supposed to get a … warning'. And I said 'well I've come back early, before my sick note ran out, hang on a minute'. The next thing I know, I'm escorted off the premises … He said, 'go back to your doctor and get a sick note to sign you back off' [and then I], sign back on so I can go back to work … On the Monday I was going back to work, I went to the doctor but I'd got really ill by then. But the funny thing was, the manager had said to me 'look I appreciate, it's off the record, I appreciate the fact that you have come back', he said … 'We'll take that into account when I come to issue a … warning and you do look alright.' Yeah, 'I look alright', I had a collapsed lung! Oh I got so ill in the few days after that. I was really ill and I'd gone back to work to try to make sure I saved my job.

In the way they deal with sick leave, employees returning to work after sickness absence, the management of ongoing conditions (e.g. providing time off to attend hospital or other sources of therapy), and the 'reasonable adjustments' to work and the workplace required by UK legislation, organisations were seen to be behaving far from rationally. Confirmation of this finding was given by the Fair Treatment Survey, which showed a correlation between bullying and/or harassment and disability and that employees with disabilities were nearly twice as likely to say they had a range of problems with employment rights. Simple bivariate analysis showed that disabled employees were particularly likely to say they had experienced problems with sick leave or pay but also with holidays, rest breaks, number of hours or days they worked, pay, contracts, complaints procedures, grievance procedures, health and safety, and retirement (Fevre et al. 2009). While problems with employment rights do not necessarily entail unreasonable treatment, we strongly suspect that it was issues like these that much of the unreasonable treatment disabled employees experienced in our survey referred to. In such cases, we would argue, the stimulus to unreasonable treatment was the disappointment of employers' expectations which their employees believed were unreasonable given their disability or health condition.

We do not think it an oversimplification to suggest that most unreasonable treatment that employees with disabilities experienced occurred when they tried to make their work a better fit with their disability or condition. For example, they encountered it when they took sick leave or when they wanted to negotiate changes in their work to accommodate their disability or condition. It is, however, possible that subsequent changes to British legislation improved the situation documented in our survey and the FTWS. The Equality Act 2010 attempted to clear up some of the confusion surrounding 'reasonable adjustments', but it also made it possible for disabled employees to argue that an employer's unreasonable expectations amount to illegal, indirect discrimination (Part 2, Chapter 2, Paragraph 19 of the Act). If disabled employees have particular problems in respect of complaints or grievance procedures, the 2010 Act opened up the possibility that such problems may amount to victimisation (Part 2, Chapter 2, Paragraph 27).

The other characteristics that made employees more likely to experience unreasonable treatment in our survey – age and ethnicity – had nowhere near as strong a relationship as having a disability or long-term health condition, but the ethnicity effect was the stronger of the two and its direction was surprising. In multivariate analysis, non-white employees were less likely to experience unreasonable treatment. Most of this was the result of employees with Asian backgrounds being much less likely to experience unreasonable treatment than anyone else. Indeed, Asians were significantly less likely to experience half of the various types of unreasonable treatment. It is as well, at this point, to remember that most unreasonable treatment originated with managers and co-workers.

It might be ventured that, in a 'politically correct' society, people will manage their public behaviour in such way that they rule out any possible accusation of racism. In this case, it could be imagined ethnic minority employees as a whole would be better treated, but this does not really help us to explain why the effect should only be visible for employees of Asian origin. Is it the case, perhaps, that it was less likely for Asians to be unreasonably treated wherever they happened to work, or was it because they were less likely to work in troubled workplaces? Non-white employees, and particularly Asians, were significantly less likely, compared to white workers, to witness the unreasonable treatment of others in the workplaces. This might suggest that they did indeed work in less troubled workplace and that this was why they did not experience as much unreasonable treatment. It might even suggest that Asian employees take steps to avoid taking jobs in troubled workplaces. We return to these possibilities later in the book (p. 217).

We suggested (p. 44) that getting old might be associated with an increased risk of experiencing unreasonable treatment because older people are more likely to suffer impairments and illness. In fact, once we control for disabilities and long-term conditions, increased age slightly reduced experience of unreasonable treatment amongst our sample. Increased age reduced (though not by much) the experience of six out of eight types of unreasonable treatment across the board. This was not a question of getting used to how things were in a particular job because the reduction in unreasonable treatment was not related to length of job tenure. Nor was it to do with getting better treatment with more seniority, or inducting successive generations into the culture of the workplace, because the (albeit small) reduction in unreasonable treatment continued beyond the years in which people joined the labour force for the first time.

Perceptions of treatment as reasonable or not might change with age. Older workers might know from their experiences in other jobs that the treatment they received in their current job could hardly be described as unreasonable. The age factor might also be a 'cohort effect', meaning that successive generations have been more likely to perceive their treatment as unreasonable throughout their careers. That is, people born in the 1970s will always perceive more unreasonable treatment than people born in the 1950s, no matter how old they are when you ask them. These are theoretical possibilities but throughout our analysis of the survey we have found that we have eventually tended to discard explanations of our data couched in terms of different perceptions because they do not fit other survey data or the findings of our qualitative research. We see no reason why this case should be any different, and therefore we think the simple explanation of the age effect is probably the most likely: workers are more reasonably treated as they got older, perhaps because they demand this.

One of the fitters we interviewed at Strand Global Systems was a woman in her early twenties who thought her manager was 'very ageist'. She found it 'really irritating' that he talked 'completely differently' to younger people and treated them differently because he expected them 'to act like young people'. She felt he was also holding her back, not letting her learn and progress at her own pace and not listening to her opinions. She could not object because her career depended on his decisions. She could not be 'mouthy' because she would not get on – indeed she wanted to be a manager herself. The older employees could be mouthy because they were stuck and would never be promoted. The young woman said, 'they just baby you', and she did not like having her abilities underestimated and would have liked the chance to prove that she had learnt a lot from studying ahead on her own, but her boss was 'always spying on you from afar, he's never there knowing that you've gained this knowledge. So he's always assuming that you're still just a rooky when you're not'.

By accident, we happened to interview the assistant to this young woman's manager, so we heard his slant on what she told us about being given a menial job because she was young: 'They wouldn't have asked any of the older ones to do it because they know they would have told them to go away.' Why was she given what she called 'just child's work … just silly'? He said it wasn't silly at all – it was all about encouraging customers 'by having a world-class workplace'. So why did the older fitters not have to do it? 'Some were quite happy to get involved; in fact a majority were quite happy to get involved, but when it comes to actually getting on your hands and knees and scraping up a bit of old tape that was on the floor, then a few people did draw the line at that. But we just honoured that.'

Being younger, disabled and white put employees in our sample at greater risk of unreasonable treatment. The survey is better able to tell us why the employees with disabilities were at risk than white workers and younger workers, but these are not the only puzzles the survey data threw up. For example, it might have been easy to assume at the outset that the members of other 'equality strands' would be more likely experience unreasonable treatment. The results for Asian employees may go a long way to explaining why non-Christians and those born outside the United Kingdom were no more likely to experience unreasonable treatment, but the fact that women were no more likely to experience unreasonable treatment could be just as much a conundrum as the surprising finding.

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