Discrimination law applies to everyone

Legislation is rarely introduced to universal acclaim, and the equality laws have had their fair share of opponents complaining about ‘political correctness gone mad’ and the burden on business.

But one person’s red tape is another’s protection, and legislation that aims to protect a minority group can, equally, protect the majority.

Abuse unacceptable

The recent tribunal case of Sharon Legg v Rubyz Limited pitted a heterosexual, married mother against the owners of Dreams nightclub in Bournemouth.

Mrs Legg told the tribunal that she was frequently subjected to abuse because she was not a lesbian, and was referred to derogatorily by her manager as a “breeder.” Her former employers were ordered to pay £3,000 for injury to feelings.

When the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 were introduced, their main aim was to combat discrimination against gay employees.

A TUC survey of gay workers published in 2000 found that 44% believed they had suffered discrimination at work because of their sexuality.

However, the 2003 regulations provide protection from discrimination whether your sexual orientation is to the same sex, the opposite sex, or both. Legg was protected from sexual orientation discrimination for being straight.

Similarly, the legislation on age discrimination provides protection against discrimination for persons of all ages, not just the old race discrimination legislation protects everyone, since we are all members of a racial group and sex discrimination laws protect men, women, and people undergoing gender reassignment. And legislation outlawing religious discrimination covers any religious or philosophical belief. However, disability discrimination legislation only protects the disabled.

While the evolution of the separate strands of discrimination law has led to some anomalies, the overall thrust of the legislation is to create an equal, inclusive society where everyone is treated with respect and there is opportunity for all.

Unsexy statistics

The Employment Tribunal statistics for the year ending in March 2007 show that there were only 470 sexual orientation discrimination claims made. This number seems low.

With about 10% of the 30 million people in employment in the UK being gay, based on the TUC’s sample of 44% reporting discrimination in 2000, there would be scope for about 1.3 million sexual orientation discrimination claims. So perhaps the legislation introduced four years ago has contributed to a change in the treatment of gay employees at work.

Certainly, good employers have developed anti-harassment policies and staff training programmes that incorporate sexual orientation. Some did so voluntarily before the legislation was introduced. Anecdotally, however, the legislation appears to have accelerated and expanded good practice.

Monitoring applicants

Monitoring job applicants and employees by sexual orientation as well as by race and sex is also beginning to gain acceptance with employers and staff. There is a long way to go, but the movement towards a more equal, inclusive workplace is positive.

Legg’s case has helped to highlight the fact that minority groups don’t have a monopoly on equality of treatment, and there is legal redress for all victims of harassment at work.

Richard Kenyon, partner, Field Fisher Waterhouse

Key Points

  • The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 provide protection from discrimination for all employees, whatever their sexual orientation.
  • Good employers have developed anti-harassment policies and training programmes that incorporate sexual orientation, and many are starting to include orientation in workforce monitoring programmes.
  • There were 470 sexual orientation tribunal cases brought between 2006 and 2007 – fewer than expected – perhaps because of improved employment practices.

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