As it approaches its first anniversary, what impact, if any, has the Human
Rights Act had on employers? More than you may think. Caroline Waters, head of
employment policy at BT, explains how the Act permeates all aspects of
The Human Rights Act 1998 is the first major Bill on human rights for 300
years. This fact alone makes it significant. The implications for employers,
whether in the private or public sector, are profound.
As Home Secretary Jack Straw told the House of Commons, "It will
strengthen representative and democratic government. It does so by enabling
citizens to challenge more easily actions of the state if they fail to match
the standards set by the European Convention."
At BT, we are committed to protecting and enhancing the human dignity of all
those engaged within our company. To this end, we have based our policies and
procedures on the principles set out in the United Nations Universal
Declaration of Human Rights.
We see the Human Rights Act as a useful benchmark. Its introduction to the
UK in October 2000 presented an opportunity for BT to review its policies and
practice. We could also determine whether we had achieved a level of compliance
throughout our operation that suited our business goals and enhanced our
Incorporating the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law, the Act
makes it unlawful for a public authority to act in a way that is incompatible
with a convention right.
We felt the Act had wider implications that could have an impact on all UK
employers, given the power of employment tribunals to take the provisions into
account when considering cases.
The majority of companies now accept that, if they are to build sustainable
business growth, they must behave in a socially responsible way that
contributes to the communities and societies within which they operate.
The Human Rights Act, as a statement of basic human rights, introduces into
UK law a minimum benchmark against which organisations may measure their
performance in this area.
However, sustainable profitability is increasingly dependent on diversity,
and an organisation’s intellectual resources represent a large percentage of
its value. This means there is also a business case for ethical employment that
goes beyond that required by the Act, leaving little need for further
Because it is recognised as being at the vanguard of policy development, BT
is working to establish a business model that creates value by respecting its
employees and supporting the communities in which it does business.
Our policies underpin this business ethic, which includes a desire to be at
the heart of a world where access to communications enriches lives, enhances
economies and which enables life-long learning.
We demand that our employees conduct BT’s business with the utmost
integrity, behaving ethically and responsibly wherever they are in the world.
Putting the Act into practice
To ensure BT’s existing policies and practices complied with the Act, we
established a small team of people from BT’s in-house legal department, as well
as operational managers and HR professionals.
This team reviewed each article in turn, seizing the opportunity to
challenge current policies and the business rationale for them. To establish a
valid benchmark, they also created different scenarios, which could be
established by future case law, and then considered the business defences based
on the underlying spirit of the Human Rights Act.
A matrix was drawn up, which showed the most extreme interpretation of an
article in the Act through to the most generous interpretation. This approach
enabled the team to consider whether or not BT’s current business practice was
defensible. It helped them to ensure that all of the implications of the Act
were considered, while maintaining a realistic and practical environment for
the delivery of our business objectives.
We felt that this approach gave us the most comprehensive examination of our
existing policy and practice, while also future-proofing the review in the face
of ever-developing technologies.
Freedom of expression
The impact that this has on how and where our people work may be seen by
considering article 10 – The Right to Freedom of Expression. Given that the
concept of "expression" covers words, pictures, images and actions
that could range from hairstyle to choice of clothing, to participating in
demonstrations, this article could be interpreted in a wide variety of ways.
Some of these have profound implications, not only for our employment
practice but also for the way in which BT interacts, through our employees,
with customers and other stakeholders.
At its most extreme interpretation, this article could be considered to
offer all employees the right to behave however they wish. For example, staff
may think it gives them a free hand – dress as they wish, flouting corporate
standards for appearance and behaviour.
BT felt that the standards already set were fair and reasonable. They not
only enhanced our image, but were a practical reassurance for customers who had
an established view of how a BT engineer entering their home, for example,
should look and behave.
Having established the rationale for our standards, we looked at the
introduction of this article as an opportunity to review our corporate clothing
policy. We considered the standards of appearance required throughout the
business, recognising this would inevitably differ between teams who had a
direct interface with our customers and those who did not.
In reviewing the Human Rights Act, we also took into account the fact that
many of the articles offered "qualified rights". This meant BT would
be able to offer a defence of our practice based on a reasonable right to
manage our business.
We felt we had a reasonable requirement for people who regularly interact
with customers to wear corporate clothing in order to reflect our brand and
reputation. This review also sparked a reassessment and subsequent relaxation
of our dress code for non-customer-facing employees.
Impact of Act on employment practices
Article 8, The Right to Respect for Private and Family Life, establishes a
reasonable expectation of privacy and flexibility in employment. While any of
the Act’s articles could have an impact on employers, this article raises
issues on their approach to the work-life balance, the monitoring of e-mails,
telephone calls and Internet/ intranet use.
BT has already established a clear track record of flexible employment
practice. Nonetheless, it acknowledges that pockets of our business, which
promote a culture of long hours, may be challenged under this article.
The review team thought BT’s current approach provided opportunities for
homeworking, job-sharing, non-structured hours and part-time working that were
ahead of any requirement under the Act. Nevertheless, the review generated
ideas for future policies, which are now being developed.
Recent media interest has focused on an individual’s right to claim that any
monitoring of their communications represents a breach of their human rights.
The review team felt that, as a business, BT had the right to ensure that
individuals were not accessing or sending inappropriate information via BT’s
systems. This may not only be unlawful, but could bring BT’s business into
BT has comprehensive security policies for Internet/intranet and e-mail
usage, but the review team felt that this should be revisited in view of the
The employment policy establishes a clear business imperative which we
believe would be sustainable in law. It states that communications can be
monitored to ensure compliance with broader policies, particularly as part of
employee induction programmes.
Article 14, which prohibits discrimination on any grounds, appears to extend
legislation on discrimination to areas as yet uncovered in the UK – age, sexual
It was felt that, although focused on public authorities, this legislation
would potentially have an impact on any employer who found themselves at an
employment tribunal. This caused the review team to consider BT’s existing
policy and practice on discrimination. As our policy already covers discrimination
and harassment, for reasons such as sexual orientation and religion, it was
felt that we already complied with the article’s provisions.
It is clear, however, that all organisations must now embrace equality and
diversity, in their broadest sense, as a central strategy for delivering human
Once the review team had looked at each of BT’s policies and strategies,
confirming compliance as a minimum, we began an education process to ensure all
HR business partners could talk knowledgeably with their internal customers on
the impact of the Act. Rather than develop a specific policy on the Act, the
team felt there would be a more sustainable impact on behaviours if we
positioned it within our existing policies and practices.
As the global influence of companies widens, many of the principles
enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are relevant to the way
in which companies conduct themselves. We in BT will continue to take human
rights issues seriously. This is not just the right thing to do, it also makes
great commercial sense.
There is no doubt that the Human Rights Act will increasingly influence
employment practice in the coming years. The next decade will be one of
unprecedented change. The employer-employee relationship will change most
dramatically, and a key factor in employing and working with people from the
widest possible talent pool will be an organisation’s values and beliefs.
BT believes that understanding and embracing the Act as a benchmark for
employee relationships will enhance business performance well into the future.
BT’s statement of business practice
We have published The Way We Work: BT’s statement of business practice. It
is available to all BT people and sets out very clearly how we will conduct
business. For example, it says:
– We will treat all individuals fairly and impartially, without prejudice,
and never tolerate harassment in any form
– We will respect customers’ special needs and requirements
– We will value people’s individual and team contributions
– We will value the diversity of our suppliers.
This statement governs how we act as an employer, partner and stakeholder
and has led to the creation of our underpinning policies and practice.