Tackling discrimination requires a new mindset

Humans
are experts at discrimination. Right or wrong, we all discriminate in one way
or another, often prejudging people on the grounds of looks. It is a human
condition. It is a fact of life that we also make those kind of judgements
about the people we seek to employ. However, to make judgements based purely on
a person’s race is culturally unacceptable and must be outlawed.

Today,
it is unusual to hear people being openly racist about ethnic minority
individuals, but government research nevertheless concludes that those from
ethnic minority backgrounds continue to suffer an ‘ethnic penalty’ in the
workplace.

Brought
into force in 1977, the Race Relations Act was intended to eliminate
discrimination on the grounds of race. To date, this has not been the case.

The
Act outlaws direct and indirect discrimination and applies to the recruitment
process as well as the employment relationship. However, the fact remains that
ethnic minorities are significantly under-represented in the workforce,
particularly at senior levels.

It
is against this background that the Taskforce on Race Equality and Diversity in
the Private Sector was set up, with the aim of being able to make practical
recommendations to businesses and the Government.

The
recent report produced by the taskforce places emphasis on:


leadership within organisations


education, information and support provided to organisations to be filtered
down to their employees


using incentives and rewards, such as a ‘kite-mark’


measuring progress by annual reports with a three year stop gap for change.

The
report puts responsibility firmly in the hands of businesses with more than 50
employees. It recommends that an equal opportunities champion be appointed at
group board level, supported by a nominated champion for race equality
appointed a level below. The aim is for these champions to be personally
accountable for driving change through each organisation and establishing
"a success through inclusion programme".

Employing
two senior employees to promote racial equality in the workplace would
undoubtedly have an impact on diversity in the workplace. But is it realistic
to expect an employer of just 50 people to devote two employees to tackle this
issue?

Although
the taskforce reminds us that the ethnic balance of the workforce is changing
and that recruitment pools are shrinking, I suspect that many companies will be
reluctant to allocate resources to fulfil the taskforce recommendations. In
most companies, it would be relatively easy to prove statistically that there
is a problem with racial diversity, but convincing companies that the racial
imbalance is a problem is another matter.

The
report highlights the failure of business to integrate racial equality issues
into business strategies and a failure to establish a culture of racial
diversity. The taskforce acknowledges that positive discrimination is illegal,
but emphasises the need to promote positive action. If there isn’t a
significant change within three years, the Government may be forced to
implement legislation, imposing responsibilities on companies to promote a
culture of racial diversity and acceptance.

Blatant
racial discrimination may be rare, but it still exists in the workplace. In
2002, there were 89 awards made for race discrimination in tribunal cases. This
may be the tip of the iceberg, given the evidence that significant numbers of
individuals consider they have been racially discriminated against at work. Out
of 3,117 claims brought for race discrimination at tribunal in 2003-2004, those
settled by conciliation totalled 1,200. In the same 12-month period, 96 were
withdrawn, 120 successfully won their tribunal, 641 were dismissed at the
hearing, and 190 were otherwise disposed of.

The
difficulty with race discrimination is that it often happens in a more subtle
way. Perhaps this is because it is part of our in-built tendency to
discriminate. The challenge, therefore, is to change the way employees think,
not to change business practices.

The
message to employers is clear. But is it realistic to expect a significant
change in three years, when after almost 30 years the Race Relations Act has
failed to create racial equality in the workplace? If it is a matter of
changing the way people think, then the significance of the challenge cannot be
over estimated.

By
Julia Carter, Legal director, Human & Legal Resources

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