Employers will need more effective management and monitoring of anti-discrimination policies to comply with new legislation from Europe, lawyers are warning.
New draft regulations introducing protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and religious or philosophical belief are set to become law by the end of 2003. And they are going to make employers more vulnerable to liability.
"Monitoring and management is going to be much more difficult than at present," said Christopher Mordue, associate at Pinsent Curtis Biddle.
"To a much greater extent we are talking about protecting parts of an individual's life which may be known only to those working most closely with them," he said. "It is those colleagues who may cause liability through inappropriate language or behaviour."
The legislation, particularly in relation to sexual orientation, is likely to trigger a huge increase in discrimination and harassment claims brought about by offensive office banter, e-mails and other everyday aspects of the working environment, he warned.
"Employers should be using the time they have left to take a good hard look not only at their paper equal opportunities policies but on how those statements are put into practice," he said.
The new laws relating to sexual orientation will at least bring clarity to what has been a grey area. At present it is unclear whether gay employees have any protection from harassment or discrimination. The case of Pearce v Governing Body of Mayfield School in which a lesbian teacher is seeking compensation under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 for homophobic abuse by pupils, is set to be heard in the House of Lords during November.
The new law, banning discrimination on grounds of religious or philosophical belief is likely to cause problems because of the lack of clarity on what kinds of 'belief' are covered.
"In its draft form, the legislation will leave it open to the chair of any employment tribunal to make essentially philosophical decisions about what types of discrimination could be considered," said Rachel Dineley, partner at Beachcroft Wansbroughs.
Lawyers also foresee a raft of claims relating to time off for religious observances.
In addition, for the first time in UK discrimination law the regulations will introduce a definition of harassment that wi