Equality is the best policy

Equality in the workplace simply makes good sense. Nevertheless, ensuring that equal employment opportunities are available and offered to all isn’t easy. Mistakes are all too easy for even the best-intentioned employers to make.

Existing and upcoming legislation on ending discrimination in the workplace is intended to expand the employment and vocational training opportunities available to people who may have previously experienced discrimination. It also aims to prevent future generations from experiencing it and to make workplaces healthier, happier and more productive environments for all.

Recent and future UK anti-discrimination legislation on age, disability, religion or belief and sexual orientation results from the Employment Framework Directive, agreed by the European Union Council of Ministers in October 2002. The directive makes it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of age, disability, racial or ethnic origin, religious belief, sex or sexual orientation.

The UK’s Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 and the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 came into force on 1 and 2 December 2003 respectively. In terms of disability discrimination legislation, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995 (Amendment) Regulations 2003 took effect from 1 October 2004. Age discrimination in employment and vocational training will become unlawful from 1 October 2006.

The basic premise of these separate strands of legislation is similar in regard to discrimination against the individual situations each represents. But there are subtle differences between them that can be confusing.

Even before this most recent clutch of legislation, a University of Cambridge study in 2000 concluded, ‘The statutes are written in a language and style that renders them largely inaccessible to those whose actions they are intended to influence. Human resource managers, trade union officials, officers of public authorities, and those who represent victims of discrimination find difficulty in picking their way through it.’

An additional complication in the UK is that there is no single cohesive body representing equality interests across the board. The Government has announced plans to create a single equality and human rights commission, which will then be tasked with developing a single equality act. Nevertheless, the creation of both will take time.

Until then, employers must grapple with separate legislation. Keep in mind, however, that the best ways to prevent discrimination claims are treating job applicants and employees fairly and with sensitivity, and hiring and promoting according to job performance and potential.

Benefits

Why put the regulations into effect at your business? First of all, it is the law. But there are many other good reasons for working to ensure your workforce reflects different segments of local society. They include:

– Attracting and recruiting from the widest and best possible pool of candidates for jobs in your business

– Retaining trained and experienced staff

– Being seen as an employer of choice

– Having a healthy and stable corporate image provides stakeholder returns

– Increasing motivation and productivity by providing opportunity based on merit and potential

– Having a workforce that reflects the diversity of the potential customer base as well as relating to the customers

– Being able as a company to fully develop and exploit the creativity that comes from having a variety of perspectives and experiences within the workforce.

Remedies and penaltie

Discrimination can be expensive. In Consequences of discrimination – remedies and penalties, online HR information source XpertHR points out a number of remedies and penalties that employment tribunals can hand down in cases where discrimination is found to have occurred.

Non-compensatory awards are rare but employment tribunals have the option to issue the following:

– A declaration, or an order declaring the rights of the parties in relation to the act/matters complained of

– A recommendation that the respondent take reasonable steps to correct or reduce the adverse effect on the complainant can be made subject to compliance within a specified period of time.

Financial compensation can involve:

– The calculation of loss of earnings and fringe benefits, both past and future

– Net losses based upon the amount of money an applicant has already received

– Awards for injury to feelings

– Increased awards for injury to feelings if the employer has acted in a particularly malicious manner

– Damages intended to punish the wrongdoer instead of compensating the claimant

– Compensation for personal injury that results from the discriminatory act.

And then there is the cost to your organisation’s reputation and the impact on morale that even one discrimination claim can cause.

An equal opportunities policy

A first step in creating a discrimination-free zone at your company is in having and enforcing a strong equal opportunities policy that is well-known and understood by your employees.

Here are some fundamental elements to consider when you are developing and implementing your company equal opportunities policy:

– Staff awareness and training on your equal opportunities policy

– Job advertisements

– Application forms

– Interviews

– Terms and conditions

– Harassment and bullying

– Disciplinary and grievance procedures

– Flexible working practices

– Family and partner-friendly policies

– Third parties – for instance, recruitment and temporary worker agencies, contractors or customers.

However you go about developing your policy, one point you can be sure of is that the issue of equality will not go away.

As a recent Audit Commission report comments, it will become increasingly important. ‘Equality is not a minority issue: it is important for everyone and directly affects the majority of the population. Women represent more than 51 per cent of the population; disabled people around 14 per cent, and black and minority ethnic communities over 7 per cent. As the population becomes increasingly diverse, the need to address diversity and equality will become greater.’


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