What graduates need to know about the world of work

Lower salaries, unpaid positions and minority rights – know your rights and options

Emily Logan, chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, says it is important that graduates entering the workplace are aware of employment rights. Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images

Emily Logan, chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, says it is important that graduates entering the workplace are aware of employment rights. Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images


Young, free and hopeful, you’re about to enter the workforce. You’ve a lot to prove and you’re determined to shine. But do you know your rights? How can you avoid being exploited or overworked? If you’re not permanent, do you have any protection at all? And what if you’re a woman, an ethnic minority, disabled or LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex)? Will your status place additional obstacles in your career?

One look at the companies shortlisted for the gradireland Diversity Recruitment Award suggests cross-sectoral awareness of the importance of individual rights and diversity in the workplace. The landscape is changing but it remains important that graduates inform themselves of their rights and entitlements.

Workplace rights

Today’s workplace is very different from that of a decade or two ago, and there are now few if any graduates with an expectation of a job for life. Some companies are using a conveyor belt of unpaid internships in place of hiring employees, making it difficult for paid staff to get a foothold.

In a growing number of sectors, particularly academia and media, precarious and insecure work is common; this is a factor in declining trade union memberships because workers are reluctant to join if they think they won’t be around for long.

At the turn of the century, trade union membership was close to 38.7 per cent and has now declined to 27 per cent. Nobody wants to be the person to complain about being discriminated against because of their gender, sexuality or disability, nor do they want to be the only one in a union or raising the issue of union membership.

David Gibney of Mandate trade union points out that, while workers do have a constitutional right to join a union, there is no obligation on the employer to recognise the union and unions are not allowed the right to talk to staff in the workplace, making recruitment difficult.

“Part of the problem is that unions can’t get in to talk to staff in new companies.,” he says. “We have had officials removed from car parks and companies removing our noticeboards. We have companies with union-busting strategies and then we wonder why membership is falling.

Unions aren’t popular with everyone – many people think that their wage demands are excessive; bosses overpaid, insulated and too close to politicians; and that they slow down progress or reforms in areas like education. But they have been instrumental in securing minimum wages, maternity and holiday rights and employment protections. They’re not just for the public service, says Gibney, and many professionals are in a union.

“Every premier league footballer and every doctor is in a union, the Financial Services Union represents workers in the finance industry, while employers are represented by the Irish Business and Employers Confederation. ”

Recent figures from the Workplace Relations Commission found that, in the retail sector alone, more than 50 per cent of employers were breaking the law by underpaying staff. Inspections are conducted by the National Employment Rights Agency (Nera) but they do not have the resources to inspect all workplaces. And where breaches of the law are found, there are no additional penalties imposed on the employer.

Gibney says that much of the same problems affecting the retail sector are increasingly being found in professional sectors, including academia and the media as well as business.

“Graduates should join a union,” he says. “The more people in the union, the greater your chance of benefiting from collective agreements over pay, sick leave, pension schemes, holidays and job security. We have won over €45m in pay increases for our members over the last four years.”


Even if workers do form a union, there are other problems that the majority of graduates may face on account of their gender or minority status. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) operates a phone service for people concerned about their rights being breached because of their gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, skin colour or ethnic origin including membership of the Travelling community.

Figures from 2016 show that the main issues raised with the IHREC in relation to discrimination were disability (25 per cent of callers), family status such as whether or not a person has children or dependents (22 per cent), skin colour or ethnic origin (17 per cent), age (11 per cent) and gender (10 per cent).

There is also evidence that black African, Asian and other ethnic minority groups have more trouble finding jobs. Back in 2013, a study by the Economic and Social Research Institute found that black African people had the highest rate of unemployment and that this was caused by discrimination when they applied for jobs. Black Africans were also seven times more likely to experience workplace discrimination, while EU nationals from an ethnic minority are four times as likely to experience discrimination as white Irish people. This is an ongoing cause for concern.

Emily Logan, chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, says it is important that graduates who are newly entering the workplace are aware of employment rights. “Discrimination in the workplace can happen when your employer, workmate, or a company you are applying to, treats you less favourably than another person because of who you are. The legislation which deals with this is covered by the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 and these ensure that people have equal opportunities in relation to skills, training, jobs and promotion. These acts apply to full-time, part-time and temporary workers in the public and private sector as well as to people hired through agencies.”

- For more information on your workplace rights and legal remedies, call the IHREC on 01-8583000 or email YourRights@ihrec.ie

Graduates with disabilities

Ann Heelan is executive director of the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (Ahead). She points out that fewer than 33 per cent of working-age people with disabilities are employed. Visually impaired and blind people have difficulty getting through the leaving cert, while deaf and hearing impaired students also struggle.

“People can have stereotypical attitudes and unconscious biases about disability. If a student with a disability does make it through college, they are less likely to go on to a postgrad which puts them at a greater disadvantage. If a student applies for a job, they may have gaps on their CV because their disability may have prevented them from getting work experience, or they may have a 2.2 degree because of the impact of their disability. But these are students who spent their whole lives solving problems and may be good for the employer, but sometimes the employer had rigid requirements in the job application and this can put people off applying.”

Ahead now runs the Willing Able Mentoring (WAM) programme, which matches graduates with disabilities and employers and supports and advises the employer on how they can accommodate employees, whether that’s a special chair, a more flexible working day or access to an interpreter. It is funded by the Department of Social Protection and provides six to nine months of fully paid internships in both the public and private sectors, with firms such as ESB, Microsoft and Abbott among participants. Heelan says that it remains a competitive process and that the firms still want the right person for the job; they’re simply broadening their search to make sure that they get the best candidates. “It wouldn’t work if it was only about tokenistic diversity or about charity; the employers want the best people and we are connecting them to resilient problem-solvers who want to work and prove themselves.”


Women in the workplace

“Women are surprised when they enter the workplace and discover that there is more discrimination than they expected,” says Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council. “There is a perception that the pay gap happens later on, when women start having children. Actually, it happens within three of four years of entering the workplace.

“There’s an unconscious bias which leads to men being promoted faster than women; they tend to be given more projects and increased responsibilities. Men are seen as more promotable and given more projects to work on. Individual organisations and employers, in both the public and private sectors, need to be aware of this.”

Focusing on what individual women should do to tackle this is misguided; organisations and employers, particularly those at senior levels, need to lead change. “Companies should look at how many women they employ at senior level and what is the promotion path for men and women within the organisation,” says O’Connor. “The Government is putting together a new national women’s strategy and, as part of this, we want companies to look at gender segregation within their own workplace. How many people are employed at senior level and what is the promotion path for men and women in the organisation? But we also need better data gathering across the board.”

“Women are more likely to face sexual harassment in the workplace; companies must create a culture, directed from the top, which does not tolerate sexual harassment. Women have faced discrimination because they are or could be pregnant, especially in lower-paid positions, and they often face pressure to come back to work early after they have had a baby.”

Women have the majority of caring responsibilities in society, so companies that want to hold on to their talent should be looking at family-friendly policies and flexible working conditions, while more transparency would allow graduates to see which companies do and do not take gender equality seriously, says O’Connor.

LGBTI rights

Last year at Dublin Pride, a group of anarchists protested about the large presence of big corporations in the march. Whatever about the rights and wrongs the LGBTI movement becoming increasingly commercialised, it’s become clear that it makes good business sense for companies to recruit and support LGBTI staff.

The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network has campaigned for LGBT rights in Ireland. The Irish Times spoke to its executive director, Áine Duggan, shortly before she raised concerns about financial management at the organisation prior to her tenure and resigned her position. Before joining Glen, Duggan was chief executive of Re: Gender, a national US-based gender equality organisation. She has extensive experience and expertise in workplace diversity and is a widely-respected equality campaigner.

Duggan says that, over her career, she has noticed that larger companies and the public sector have made it easier for people to be out at work and have tended to support their staff and make promotional opportunities available to them. But in smaller companies or organisations that are less globally connected, LGBTI staff can face a tougher time. Over the years, she has had reports of bullying, gay jokes and transphobia in the workplace.

“Sometimes, this is subtler but the intent is clear, as was the case for a gay employee whose colleagues sang YMCA every time he walked by, or other employees in the same breath talking about their opposite-sex partner and suggesting that LGBTI people ‘keep their sexuality to themselves’, effectively excluding them from workplace collegiality.

“Rights will only get us so far, but they’re not the same as equality, so cultural change is still needed. In the Irish work context, it is positive that there is a grievance process and you can go to the WRC, as well as availing of help from a union rep, legal non-profit or LGBTI organisations such as Glen or the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland. It’s also important to remember that an employee has multiple identities, so they could be a woman, gay and disabled. Some employers are moving beyond tolerance and rights to actively embracing diversity. As well as being supportive of staff, they see that it makes the workplace more productive.”

For a number of years, Glen has worked with employers on the Diversity Champions programme, which is designed to help companies working through diversity and inclusion. While most of the participants have ended to be larger firms, this is changing and more small firms are coming on board.


Panel: Your rights in the workplace

- Employers cannot advertise for “a young, energetic, sales girl” because this gives the impression that men and older people are not welcome to apply.

- Employers don’t have to hire people who aren’t capable, but everyone asked to do a test must be treated equally, so people with disabilities must be provided with reasonable accommodations.

- You have a right to be paid equally to your colleagues if you performed the same work or have similar conditions, if your work is interchangeable with that of another employee.

- You have a right not to be harassed in the workplace by employers, co-workers or customers.

Courtesy of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. For more, see ihrec.ie/your-rights- You are entitled to a contract of employment and even employees on zero-hour contracts have rights under a 1997 act.

- Most employees are entitled to four weeks paid annual leave, while part-time workers’ leave entitlements are generally 8 per cent of the hours worked to a maximum of four weeks per year

- You are entitled to at least minimum wage rates and to be paid on time; there are internal procedures you should follow with your employer before bringing them to the WRC.

- Your entitlement to paid sick leave varies depending on your contract.

Courtesy of CitizensInformation.ie. Google search “employment rights citizens information” or contact your union rep for more information.

Panel: The gradireland Diversity Recruitment Award sponsored by Ahead

Shortlisted organisations



Boston Scientific


Enterprise Rent-A-Car


First Derivatives


Winner: EY