Equalities legislation: positive discrimination risks

Thomases Jefferson and Paine have a lot to answer for: it was they, in the late 18th century, who proclaimed that all men are born equal. They were utterly wrong of course, but the notion has stayed with us ever since. Its latest manifestation in the UK is Orwellian equalities minister Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill which, if enacted, could have serious implications for HR professionals.

It’s worth noting that the minister has enjoyed the advantages of privilege. A Harley Street consultant’s daughter, she was educated at the elite St Paul’s School for Girls in West London and is the niece of Lord Longford. After studying politics at York University she trained as a solicitor before becoming legal officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties and later MP for Peckham.

Ironically this Blairite would probably fall foul of her own plans to allow positive discrimination in recruitment – except if she was up against a white male with practically the same background and qualifications as herself and they were competing for the same job. Highly unlikely of course: which is why positive discrimination could be a legal minefield for employers.

Any legislation would have to spell out clear guidelines for positive discrimination as it’s very rare that, say, two candidates are exactly matched for a given job. Discriminate against the better qualified one and legal action may well ensue.

Forcing employers to undertake pay audits will also create headaches for HR departments.

Equalities legislation works when it is mandatory and specific, such as insisting on quotas of specific groups in particular workplaces, or abolishing the mandatory retirement age.

However, at first sight Harman’s proposals seem far too woolly to push the equalities’ bandwagon very far forward.

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