Getting caught in the discrimination trap

It is easy to blame managers for the UK’s poor record on productivity. But
managers increasingly find themselves treading on hot coals, not knowing what
they can ask employees to do without breaching the employment contract or being
caught up in the discrimination trap.

There is a plethora of employment legislation. And now, with the onset of
more discrimination legislation, we are faced with a structural dilemma. Do we
set up three separate commissions for age, religion and sexual persuasion, or
one? Here is a unique opportunity for the Government to move away from treating
us all as ‘different’, and protecting us from being male or female, black or
white, and accept that we all have a contribution to make and want to be valued
as individuals.

European countries with inclusive legislation will not be introducing waves
of new discrimination laws – their existing laws already accommodate people
being treated fairly.

The problem is that we have three commissions in place to regulate gender,
race and disability – so the easy answer is to ‘group’ the new areas of age,
religion and sexual persuasion within these.

But we have to ask ourselves why legislation has failed to make the progress
around gender and race – disability is too new for comment on its progress –
that we all hoped for. Health and safety legislation, for example, has done a
much better job.

From an employer perspective, health and safety is much clearer, the
framework of control is easy to understand and employers and employees know
when they are getting it wrong. The HSE helps and guides and it is only when
employers continue to get it wrong that restrictive notices are served. OK,
they still have areas that need improvement, but their success to date can be
measurably demonstrated.

Discrimination commissions are under-resourced and give conflicting messages
to employers – they bite the hand that feeds them. Employers would be more open
and honest about the problems they are facing and ask for support if it wasn’t
for the fact that the very same people will be punishing them when things go
wrong. This means the commissions don’t have a measure of the problems, because
employers are busy trying to get things sorted before they get ‘found out’ and
punished at tribunal.

Where is the mutual trust we fondly refer to when talking about the
relationship behind the Employment Contract?

The solution is simple: a single Equality Commission. It should embrace an
inclusive approach to preventing discrimination as well as enforcing the law.

Is it an opportunity or dilemma? You decide.

By Denise Keating, Head of people proposition, Marks & Spencer

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