Equal Opportunities – historical throwback or current issue?
With the issue of the gender pay gap once again dominating the headlines, equal opportunities is surely at the forefront of many employers’ minds. The issue of how to protect employees from discrimination and businesses from potential claims is an ongoing issue and one which employers must address to avoid the significant liabilities which can arise.
Theresa May has vowed to create “a Britain that works for everyone” – but what can businesses be doing to ensure equal opportunities in the workplace?
A history lesson
The issue of equal opportunities is not a modern day problem, spanning several decades. A number of key events have led us to where we are today:
- The introduction of meaningful equality legislation was initiated by the industrial action of 187 female car-sear cover machinists at Ford in Dagenham, in 1968. They campaigned to have their work recognised as skilled and equal to the male colleagues, further to Ford’s pay rate system; this included a a skilled male rate, a semi-skilled male rate, an unskilled male rate - and a women’s rate!
- The Equal Pay Act was implemented in 1970, followed by the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975.This paved our way into the European Community and brought us towards conformity with Article 141 of the Treaty of Rome, which requires that ‘each Member State shall ensure that the principle of equal pay for male and female workers for equal work or work of equal value’.
- Race continued to remain a huge issue, exemplified by Conservative MP, Enoch Powell’s speech in April 1968 against immigration into Britain. Mr Powell was ultimately sacked from the shadow cabinet for his racist views and existing race relation laws were soon strengthened. The Race Relations Act 1976 saw these laws extended further and this set the foundations for what we now know as the Equality Act 2010.
Equal opportunities in 2016
Although political views differ, and the question of immigration remains a hot topic, we now unhesitatingly accept that discrimination on grounds of sex and race is wrong. Discrimination is also illegal in the workplace insofar as it relates to the ‘protected characteristics’ of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, religion and belief, and sexual orientation.
No-one knows for sure how discrimination law is likely to develop in a post-Brexit world. However, given the educative effect of the legislation and way in which we have internalised the self-evident wrongs of unlawful discrimination, little is likely to change. Employers must therefore continue to guard against the significant liabilities which can arise. It is important to understand that the discrimination legislation focuses on outcomes and behaviours, not intentions. There are a number of key actions employers can take and these are likely to include:
- Understanding of the main features of the legislation and its most recent developments
- Actively promoting equality and dignity in the workplace
- Ensuring appropriate policies are in place
- Ensuring those policies are implemented
- Providing training for managers and members of the workforce.This is no luxury add-on: proof of effective training can be used to support a statutory defence which can completely absolve the employer of liability for an employee’s unlawful acts
- Reviewing systems, practices, policies and procedures relating to recruitment, the work environment, training and development, promotion and career development, staff retention, pay rewards and benefits, redundancy and termination, health and safety, communication with employees and members of the public.
- Reviewing contracts and benefits packages to ensure equality is maintained
- Ensuring reasonable adjustments are made for disabled employees
From April 2017, employers must analyse their gender pay gap each April. The report must then be published within the next year (12 months). For more information on what this means for your business, take a look at our frequently asked questions.