Whose job is it to stop further £1.5m payouts?

The award of £1.5m in compensation to Julie Bower last week for unfair
dismissal and sex discrimination against Schroder Securities has caused a
sensation in the media and is a talking point in offices up and down the
country.

Unfortunately, what has caused the interest is not sex discrimination, but
the huge figure involved.

Many who do not work in the City find it hard to understand how anyone could
be insulted by a £25,000 bonus, and eyebrows have been raised at the much larger
amounts paid to Bower’s male colleagues.

Coming a week after the Equal Opportunities Review’s report showing that
employers paid out a record £3.5bn in compensation for discrimination in 2000,
the Bower case is another reminder that non-compliance with equality
legislation is very expensive indeed.

It will certainly help HR professionals persuade their boards to take
discrimination at work seriously. However, the furore surrounding big payouts
for sex discrimination can have a negative effect on the credibility of sex
discrimination law. Such cases focus attention on the supposed gains of
professional women and away from the legions of poor and modestly paid women
who suffer pay discrimination in the workplace. For the public and for many
business people, big awards also reinforce the perception that equality law can
lead to a compensation culture.

The award for Bower is, of course, fair, provided it reflects her loss of
earnings as a result of discrimination. Sensible employers will want to make
sure that the talent of potential female high-fliers is not thwarted by
discriminatory practices. And for her part, Bower made a courageous decision to
take the company to tribunal. Whether or not the huge sums paid to workers in
the square mile are justifiable is a separate issue.

The HR profession must bear the brunt of bringing about workplace equality
and taking measures to close the gender pay gap. Many HR departments have
already shown how this can be done and those in sectors where sexual
discrimination is still common should study them closely.

The exemplar HR teams have developed grievance procedures to prevent
disputes leading to tribunals. They have overhauled their policies and
procedures. And they have built competency in carrying out annual pay reviews
to remove the kind of disparity that led to the £1.5m payout to Julie Bower.

When a case ends in a massive compensation payout to an individual woman
there are no winners, unless it leads to good practice among employers in
future.

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