2021: The year to end workplace discrimination?

Darren Hockley explores how innovative training could help eradicate workplace discrimination in 2021.

In a recent study of Ministry of Justice (MOJ) data going back over the last five years DeltaNet International wanted to find out the top reasons workers are likely to take their employer to tribunal – they thought the results might help businesses identify and close knowledge gaps, as these compliance ‘blind-spots’ could potentially lead them into hot water particularly if lack of training implies employees aren’t properly protected or informed.  

The results were interesting. The number one claim (in terms of number of cases) 2015/16 – 2019/20 being related to the Working Time Directive, which states a UK employee may not work more than 48 hours per week (on average; usually taken over a 17-week period) unless there are mitigating circumstances. 

When we breakdown the data in terms of percentage increase, however, the data tells a different story, with cases pertaining to workplace discrimination seeming to rise alarmingly across the last five years.  

The number one percentage increase during this time is cases relating to sexual orientation discrimination (up a shocking 165%); followed by other types of workplace discrimination including disability discrimination (up 133%), religion/belief discrimination (up 130%), race discrimination (up 94.66%), pregnancy/maternity discrimination (up 87%) and, finally, sex discrimination (up 15%).  

Thankfully, there is one area with encouraging statistics, and that’s age discrimination. Cases for which are down by over 80% in the same five-year period.  

Why is discrimination so prevalent? 

In the interest of fairness, it’s true to report that, as of 2017, tribunal fees were abolished. This means unhappy employees are free to use the tribunal system without financial concerns holding them back. Naturally, this has seen tribunal claims figures rise across the board.

Discrimination can also be unconscious, embedded deep within the corporate culture allowing it to thrive

However, it doesn’t explain why these numbers are rising so drastically when it comes to discrimination in particular.  

The truth is, discrimination takes many forms, and it happens for various reasons. Often it is displayed as bullying, harassment, and victimisation, but discrimination can also be unconscious, embedded deep within the corporate culture allowing it to thrive. 

Discrimination impacts every aspect of workplace culture, through hiring practices, promotions, pay structure, productivity, and the overall wellbeing of employees. And, while it’s at least a start, it’s going to take more than an annual speed-read through the company’s equality policy to tackle decades of deeply engrained bias. 

Can training help? 

The good news is that training – particularly online training – is evolving. Over the years eLearning has seen employees being force-fed dull, legislatively focused learning-content for the sake of ticking a box that is not conducive to real learning, nor does it help instill the types of behavioural change needed when it comes to reducing workplace discrimination.  


When you align deep-seated cultures of silence, decades of normalisation, or simply ‘shrugging off’ workplace discrimination as ‘office banter’ with poor compliance eLearning, you’re sending a clear message right from the top. It says ‘we don’t really value change’ or ‘it’s not important that you retain and adopt this information’.  

Learners need to be engaged with the content for that process to begin! 

Adaptive learning  

Still, there’s a new kid on the block. The rise of AI and machine learning for the online training industry has led to new innovations, and there’s no longer any excuse for ‘one size fits all’ mandatory training. The sort that elicits groans and eye-rolls from employees, many of whom have repeated this same training repeatedly.  

Adaptive learning removes the repetitiveness from compliance training, by – first diagnosing – and then targeting only the gaps in knowledge each individual employee needs to fill. By doing so, it also removes a lot of ‘wasted’ time going over information that’s either not relevant or that the employee already has awareness and understanding. A welcome innovation for busy employees eager to get back to business! 

Year on year your employees aren’t subjected to the same learning content either. Rather, the AI leveraging modern learning platforms can suggest different learning styles to keep things fresh and to suit the individual’s taste, e.g. detailed study, immersive learning, short-courses – even microlearning bursts to fill an urgent need for information. 

Each year the employees’ learning path adapts to evolving needs and knowledge gaps, or else can be used to upskill and progress employees ready for a new challenge.  

Better results  

Adaptive learning encourages rather than depresses engagement and knowledge retention. By design, it’s made to prevent learning fatigue and to value employee time and your organisation’s actual requirements far above simple box-ticking. 

It’s also agile enough so that individual training can be deployed urgently, if needed, allowing L&D leaders to work reactively to mitigate identified risks. This hands the wheel back, somewhat, training professionals. 

Of course, adaptive learning isn’t the only answer to ending workplace discrimination, but it is certainly a way to drive engagement with the knowledge and information necessary to action a significant culture shift. Real behavioural change occurs when you value education and awareness on the subject above simply checking it off the list.  

After all, in a work environment where staff aren’t made aware of their rights, aren’t empowered to recognise acceptable versus unacceptable treatment, or aren’t encouraged to speak up about discriminatory experiences (or wouldn’t be heard if they did), how can we expect things to change? 

Employers might do well to review their culture and their turnover with a critical eye, and question if their business practices and their attention to training are in alignment holistically with the emotional, social, financial, and physical wellbeing of both the employee and the company.

The answer may surprise you. 


About the author

Darren Hockley is managing director of eLearning provider, DeltaNet International 



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