Employers unaware of Employment Equality Regulations

It has been a year since the introduction of the Employment Equality Regulations (religion and sexual orientation) 2003.

These regulations were intended to cover areas which were outside the scope of the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. The Government hoped that the regulations would end the need to make cases of discrimination on the grounds of religion and sexual orientation fit legislation that did not apply.

Despite the fact that people in the UK are increasingly aware of their rights, there have been few cases where the 2003 legislation has been invoked. The primary reason for this is a lack of awareness of the regulations, according to a survey from law firm Eversheds.

Of the senior managers surveyed only 25 per cent were aware of laws against discrimination on grounds of religious belief; awareness of legislation in relation to sexual orientation is even lower at only 19 per cent.

Fear of harassment

In the case of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation we also have to take into account that large numbers of lesbian, gay and bisexual people are not “out” in the workplace.

Gay lobby group Stonewall estimates that up to two-thirds of lesbians and gay men may conceal their sexuality from colleagues. Fear of being outed might be a contributing factor to hesitancy in reporting incidents of direct and indirect harassment, which are covered by the regulations.

Employers should not view the regulations as something they should safeguard themselves against. The regulations can be seen as an opportunity, according to Ingrid Overett Somnier, an employment law specialist.

She said: “Progressive companies are already aware of how diversity in the workforce can bring a number of benefits outside of protecting them from discrimination lawsuits.

“A diverse workforce encourages recruitment and retention of a wider pool of talent and helps company reputations as well as potentially encouraging new clients from new groups,” she said. “Excluding a candidate on the grounds of religion, sexual orientation, gender, disability or race is not only unlawful, it also highly detrimental in getting the best people into position.”

Staff morale boost

Making new employees feel genuinely valued and comfortable enough to be themselves at work will aid retention as well as overall morale and the working environment.

Protection from litigation and encouraging a diverse workforce is partly achieved by having a clear equal opportunities policy in place. An equal opportunities policy protects the company, makes an employee feel comfortable and gives personal responsibility to individuals for their actions, according to Somnier.

She suggests companies make their equal opportunities policy part of staff induction.

There is support available to employers from the Department of Trade and Industryês £1.4m spend on information initiatives and Stonewallês The Employment Equality Regulations (Sexual Orientation): Guidelines for Employers.

Adherence brings benefits

Key points for employers in dealing with the Employment Equality Regulations (Sexual Orientation and Religion 2003)

  • Awareness of diversity of religious beliefs and sexual orientation
  • Sensitivity – this can cover everything from staff nights out to company pensions
  • Flexibility – even though this is not a legal requirement this could cover some religious holidays
  • Make sure your policy and procedures are up to scratch. Ensure employers and managers are aware
  • Proof that, as an employer, you will not tolerate direct or indirect discrimination
  • Communicate policy internally and externally
  • Ensure HR and training staff have the information and resources they need.

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