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This section provides an overview of current equality laws in the UK. It doesn’t constitute legal advice, which should be sought from qualified practitioners, but provides a basis on which to build anti-discrimination and harassment policies that suit your organisation. Ensuring equality at work is a key part of making diversity work and contributes to an environment in which employees can focus on work without distraction.
It’s illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of gender, gender reassignment, marital status, sexual orientation, race, ethnic origin, national origin, colour, nationality, religion or belief, disability, or sexual orientation.
Discrimination can be:
Parents of children under six (or disabled children under 18) now have the right to ask for flexible working. In order to ensure that you are not discriminating against them, you should try to accommodate as many requests as possible.
There is often confusion about the distinction between positive action and positive discrimination. Equality legislation allows you to take positive action to tackle marked levels of historical under-representation of people from certain groups (such as women, lesbians and gays and people from BAME backgrounds) in particular roles, professions or areas (such as senior management). In these circumstances you are allowed to encourage applications for jobs or promotion from those specific under-represented groups. The law also allows you to provide training courses to assist those in under-represented groups to develop skills to the required level to compete for jobs and promotion opportunities.
This could include:
The law does not allow you to positively discriminate, i.e. to recruit or promote people on the basis of, for example, their gender or ethnicity.
The sole exception to this is in relation to disability. Disability discrimination law imposes no limits on the steps that companies can take to advantage disabled applicants or employees. Some employers have for instance advertised to recruit solely disabled people. Indeed in some circumstances it may not only be permissible but required to positively discriminate in favour of a disabled employee as a form of reasonable adjustment. For example, a council was held to be required to redeploy to an employee who was no longer able to work in their current post straight into a more skilled, better paid position rather than requiring her to compete with other applicants.
To tackle and eliminate discrimination and harassment you need to develop appropriate policies explaining what you expect of employees, what is unacceptable and the consequences of unacceptable behaviour. Where employees feel they are being harassed or suffering discrimination, there should be clear information on what they can do about it. Senior managers should set an example to the rest of your organisation, and constantly communicate and reinforce your policies.
You also need to ensure that your human resources and other policies are transparent and free from bias. Simply having anti-discrimination policies doesn’t necessarily mean that your business isn’t discriminating. This particularly applies to your recruitment, performance management, promotion and pay policies. Be aware in particular that you may be indirectly discrimination if a rule or criteria disadvantages particular groups – unless you can show that it is legally justified.
For policies to be more than just statements of intent, there must be leadership and training to accompany the policies, and monitoring of the policies to ensure that they are being correctly implemented.
For example, one employer reviewed its policies and found them to be free from bias, well communicated and transparent. However, statistics showed that BAME employees suffered disadvantages in pay and promotion. Analysis revealed that the cause was the way in which the mainly white managers applied their policies. This situation arose due to the managers’ assumptions about BAME people’s communication styles, aspirations and ambitions.
In order to combat these assumptions, the company provided cultural awareness and race equality training for its managers. Managers were then able to improve their performance management, and the minority employees were able to progress through the company more easily, without experiencing barriers of discrimination. Scenarios such as this are common, and illustrate the importance of ensuring that policies are reinforced.
Here are the main laws that you will need to be aware of in the areas of equality and diversity:
Codes of Practice
Codes of Practice are not legal documents in themselves, consequently a failure to observe any provision is not a breach of the law. However, the Codes establish good practice and are admissible in evidence before courts and tribunals, which are entitled to take the provisions into account if they are relevant.
The three most widely used Codes of Practice are the ones that support the sex, race and disability discrimination legislation:
In addition, the following guides have been produced in the areas of equal pay, sexual orientation, and religion and belief. These guides are advisory and do not have the same legal status as the Codes of Practice listed previously:
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