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Supporting equality and diversity in the workplace

Published 14 February 2017

The Equality Act of 2010 legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and it’s up to employers to enforce it.

Back to the 70s

There’s been a spate of programmes on TV recently looking back with varying degrees of fondness on the 1970s. Through orange-tinted specs, it seems like a simpler time; on the one hand, we were enjoying the exciting benefits of colour telly, frozen food and Raleigh Choppers, but with technology in its relative infancy, we were still free to engage in proper social interaction without the aid of an iPhone and to eat a mixed grill without taking a picture of it.

That said, even the most cursory review of archive footage shows what millennials would regard as outrageously dated attitudes towards race and gender discrimination. Not only was ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ considered a harmless comedy but women were still fighting hard for equal rights in the workplace, despite the advances made as a result of the direct action by factory workers in Dagenham in 1968.

Fast forward

From the enlightened perspective of 2016, the 1970s looks like the dark ages. In the intervening years, legislative acts such as the Race Relations Act, Disability Discrimination Act and Sex Discrimination Act began to address separate areas of discrimination. In 2010, this was all brought under a single legislative umbrella with introduction of the Equality Act.

It has a straightforward purpose – to define discrimination, to rationalise equality law and to bring clarity to the ways in which it is unlawful to treat another person in the workplace and other settings.

In short, it is against the law to treat anyone unfairly – or even less favourably – than another person because of a personal characteristic. These so-called ‘protected’ characteristics include age, gender, race, religion, pregnancy/maternity, disability and sexual orientation and we are all bound by it at work, at school or university, as a consumer and when using public services.

Defining discrimination in the workplace

Simply put, it’s unlawful for an employer to say you’re too old or too young for a job or to specify a gender (except in the case of genuine occupational requirements) or discount a candidate based on nationality, colour, national or ethnic origin. Nor can employers offer different salaries, training or promotion prospects based on any of these criteria. Employers also have a responsibility to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for a disabled applicant or employee to help them overcome any potential disadvantages.

Side-stepping the rules

Which is all well and good but we all know that unscrupulous employers can circumvent lawful practices at application and interview stages; there are plenty of ways to determine applicants’ gender, age and ethnicity from a CV.

An interesting trial was undertaken in Gothenburg a few years ago involving anonymised job applications. During the trial, information about the applicant, including name, sex, country of origin or other identifiable traits of ethnicity and gender were hidden during the first phase of the job application procedure. The results showed that anonymous applications appeared to increase the probability of being interviewed regardless of gender and ethnic origin, showing an increase of about 8% for both non-western migrant workers and women.

Perhaps it’s time to introduce anonymised job applications more widely to offer greater opportunities to those who encounter the kind of discrimination that’s so very hard to counter.

Protecting workers

Discrimination in the workplace takes many different forms and every employer should be aware of their responsibility to guard against all types of discrimination.

The most basic form of discrimination involves denying opportunities to employees because of a protected characteristic – for instance, not offering a female staff member promotional prospects because she is pregnant. But it’s also important not to fall foul of indirect discrimination by putting some employees at a disadvantage compared to others: making it compulsory for staff to put in extra hours may disadvantage women because of childcare issues.

Similarly, though often difficult to prove, is perceived discrimination, where an employee is treated less fairly because of their particular protected characteristic – not being offered a job because the employer thinks the applicant is gay, for example. It’s also important for employers to be aware of conduct in the workplace that might constitute harassment, either by inappropriate behaviour or by creating an atmosphere of intimidation – perhaps making jokes about someone’s sex, race or religion.

Getting it right

The Equality Act 2010 protects people at every stage of employment: recruitment, terms and conditions, training, pay and benefits, promotion and transfer opportunities, dismissal or redundancy.

As an employer, you must not ask questions about an individual’s protected characteristics, including health, sex, religion, marital status or disabilities - so no are-you-planning-to-have-children-style questions. You must also make reasonable adjustments to ensure that all employees have access to all facilities in the workplace.

Most of it comes down to common sense and showing your employees the respect and fairness they deserve – which is surely not too much to ask.

Training for managers

Managers and supervisors need to understand equality issues and the law, to be able to cope effectively with the demands of managing diverse teams. Never has it been so important to understand the breadth of the Equality Act, whilst appreciating the impact a single claim of this nature can have on a business.

Business owners, MD, directors and HR professionals should understand that it is not the cost of training but it is the cost of not training.

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For employment law advice or if you are affected or want information and support by any of the issues in this article please give us a call. 

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