Employers will have to radically overhaul their anti-discrimination policies and practices following a far-reaching Government consultation paper released last week.
Towards equality and diversity: implementing the employment and race directives outlines the European directives that will attempt to ban workplace discrimination on grounds of age, sexual orientation and religious beliefs, and asks for feedback on how they should be implemented in the UK.
Denise Walker, head of corporate personnel at Nationwide, said, "A lot of employers will have to look at, and completely re-think, their HR policies and practices as they absolutely cannot ignore the paper or diversity."
The Government, however, will allow employers to justify different treatment of staff where there is a "genuine determining occupational requirement".
Tyrone Jones, diversity manger at Halifax, said, "It is a very significant consultation that will provide a wake-up call to share good practice.
"The age issue will cause a shift in attitudes within organisations and they will also have to look carefully at reviewing what they do on sexual orientation and race programmes."
The paper, launched by minister for women Barbara Roche, questions whether pay and other employment benefits based on age should be allowed. It also suggests that employers might no longer be able to set compulsory retirement ages.
Walker commented, "I think that there should be a retirement window."
The Government also confirmed it is considering creating a single anti-discrimination watchdog in the form of an "equality commission" that would support employers and staff.
The cost to business for implementing ensuing legislation will be £220m, with an annual cost of up to £223m.
The consultation period ends on 29 March, and legislation on race, sexual orientation and religion will be implemented in 2003. Additional anti-discriminatory laws on disability and age will follow in 2004 and 2006 respectively.