As an employer, it is important to ensure that you prevent and tackle discrimination at work. Failing to curb discrimination can result in low staff morale, increased staff turnover, adverse publicity and potential legal claims.
Discrimination can broadly be described as treating people in certain minority groups (described in the legislation as those with “protected characteristics”) differently either because they are a member of that group, or for reasons which are connected with characteristics which are associated with that group.
In the UK we have strict anti-discrimination laws and for employers it’s vitally important to get it right first time. It is also important to remember that the rules can often seem somewhat unfair to employers.
UK legislation relating to discrimination at work is essentially social policy legislation, intended to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to participate in the workplace; it is not legislation which is necessarily intended to make the lives of employers easy.
It’s important to become familiar with the Equality Act 2010. This Act is the basis of the UK anti-discrimination laws and brings together the complicated Acts and Regulations that came before. It requires equal treatment in access to employment and benefits regardless of the protected characteristics, which in the UK are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.
A separate important strand of discrimination legislation prevents employers from introducing rules or practices which are applied to everyone, but which will have a disproportionate effect on people with protected characteristics. Such rules or practices are only allowed if the employer can show that they are reasonable, notwithstanding the potential discriminatory effect that they might have.
An example might be a rule that a bus driver must have good eyesight. This is a condition which obviously discriminates against people with visual impairment, but most people would agree that despite the discriminatory effect, it is a reasonable rule.
Drawing Up an Equal Opportunities Policy
As an employer, you should draw up a comprehensive anti-discrimination policy for your workplace. It should be clear and concise so it can be easily understood by your employees. Things you may wish to consider including are:
- A statement that says you prohibit discrimination and harassment in your organisation.
- Clear definitions of what is classed as discrimination and harassment. Include examples where appropriate.
- State that behaviour outside the office applies anywhere that the employee is acting on your behalf, i.e. external meetings or work events or parties.
- The complaints and reporting mechanisms for staff. The policy should encourage your employees to speak out about bullying and harassment in the workplace without fear of reprisals. Ensure employee confidentiality and/or allow them to report anonymously.
- Explain what would happen if claims are brought against anyone if they are found to have harassed or bullied any member of staff.
Getting expert legal advice from an Employment Solicitor is advisable when drawing up an equal opportunities policy to help ensure you cover all areas of the Equality Act.
It’s also advisable to hand out your policy booklet to all new starters on their first day at work. This is so it is part of their way of working from day one. It might also be a good idea to give the policy to all staff once a year so they are up to date and reminded of their duty to treat everyone equally.
Also worth bearing in mind is that an employer is liable for the discriminatory acts of any of its employees, unless it can show that it took all reasonable steps to prevent that discrimination taking place. Having a good anti-discrimination policy may provide strong evidence that you did take all possible steps as an employer, and that can give you a defence to many discrimination claims.
You should review your policy periodically and modify it to take into account any changes in the law.
If you haven’t yet drawn up your equal opportunities policy, or you would like help reviewing an existing policy, Slater and Gordon Business Employment Lawyers can give you expert legal advice.
Call us on freephone 0800 916 9060 or contact us online and we will call you.