Most businesses have grasped the broad principles of equality in the workplace, but broad generalisations aren’t enough when it comes to dealing with individual (or collective) equality issues. Equality law is very specific and, therefore, it’s a good idea for all businesses to carry out a regular ‘equality audit’, i.e. review how your business is dealing with equality across the board.
The Equality Act 2010 legally protects individuals with protected characteristics from discrimination, victimisation and harassment in the workplace. The protected characteristics are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
The Act also requires businesses to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ in the workplace to give equal opportunities to people with a disability.
Remember that the Equality Act applies to not only employees but also other categories of people such as job applicants, partners and self-employed individuals.
Any business who breaches the Equality Act puts themselves at risk of a discrimination claim.
Stay within the law
If you have a discrimination claim brought against you, it is helpful for a business, in their defence, to be able to demonstrate a commitment to providing equal opportunities; as well as promoting diversity and protecting employees from discrimination.
In order to achieve this, you should:
- Create an equal opportunities policy: Ensure an equal opportunities policy is in place and readily available to all staff either on your intranet or in the employee handbook. Carry out regular training, whether through the induction process or as separate training, to raise awareness of the equal opportunities policy and the requirement for staff to abide by its principles.
- Pay fairly: The Equality Act 2010 requires that men and women are entitled to equal pay for equal work. An employer can only pay a man more than a woman (or vice versa) for doing equal work, if it can be proved that any variation in pay is due to a material factor which is not discriminatory. Material factors might include market forces, geographical reasons, past performance and length of service.
- Monitor: Introduce a monitoring system to review what is actually happening in practice. For example, you should know the proportion of men and women in your employment, the number of people with disabilities etc. If the monitoring shows up any potential problems, take appropriate steps to achieve equality.
- Address harassment: The organisation should have a clear harassment policy to help prevent offensive behaviour in the workplace; any breaches that occur should be rigorously dealt with. Disciplinary proceedings must be instigated against any member of staff found to be in breach.
- Create flexibility: Demonstrate a clear commitment to flexible working. That means having a flexible working policy in place and being prepared to offer job sharing, working from home, flexi-time or part time working.
There are many areas where equality at work will raise issues within a business. For example, earlier this year, a receptionist at PwC was told to wear high heels or be sent home without pay. This incident sparked a high-profile media debate and over 150,000 campaigners signed a petition calling on the government to make it illegal to require women to wear high heels at work. Apparently PwC has now changed its policy and allows women to wear flat heels.
Whether the requirement to wear high heels was or was not discriminatory was not tested in the courts, however a tribunal would take into account health and safety hazards, the level of contact with customers, the overall effect of the dress code policy and the requirement to wear a uniform. For example:
- A woman dismissed from her job as a waitress for refusing to wear a low-cut top succeeded in claiming sex discrimination in an employment tribunal as a man would not have been required to wear an equivalent uniform.
- In a case involving the supermarket Safeway, a requirement for men to have hair “not below shirt-collar length” which did not also apply to a woman was held to be lawful, in the context of the dress code as a whole.
- Similarly, an Employment Appeal Tribunal decided that where an even-handed approach is adopted, a dress code which required a man to ‘wear a shirt and tie’ but women only to ‘dress appropriately’, is not necessarily unlawful discrimination.
The above shows the importance of tailoring your equality policy to the specific environment your business operates in. If you’re in any doubt, seek legal advice when formulating policies.
Sarah is a Human Resources/ Employment lawyer at Slater Heelis LLP with over twelve years’ experience. Throughout her career, Sarah has been involved in a broad range of employment related issues including conducting tribunals, advising on personnel issues and drafting related documentation, negotiating settlements and pursuing injunctive action in respect of restrictive covenant matters.