Simpson Millar's Zee Hussain, Partner and Head of Corporate Services, explains how employers can tackle discrimination in the workplace and avoid situations that can often lead to claims for compensation.
Keep On Top Of Your Legal Duties
Under the Equality Act 2010, it's unlawful for employers to discriminate against employees, clients, or customers on the grounds of:
- Gender reassignment, including being or becoming transgender
- Pregnancy and/or maternity
- Religion/belief or lack of religion/belief
- Marital status, including being in a civil partnership
- Race (this includes colour, nationality, or ethnic or national origin)
- Sexual orientation
Knowing how these characteristics could impact your business on a day-to-day basis can make a big difference in protecting your business from costly claims.
For example, if your business is making redundancies and this affects a member of staff who is on maternity leave, or shared parental or adoption leave, they might be entitled to preferential treatment relating to suitable vacancies that are available in your business.
As the reporting element of the gender pay gap regulations is now in effect for businesses with 250 or more employees, it's necessary for big employers to share accurate data on gender pay and be prepared to tackle any issues.
Deal With Sensitive Topics Carefully
Discussions around an employee's disability or health-related matters need to be handled very carefully, especially during the recruitment process.
If, for example, an individual mentions any issues with their mental health or they discuss their disability during an interview it's important to make them aware that you cannot discuss the subject further with them.
This is because they are protected by the Equality Act 2010, and it would therefore be unlawful for you to discuss anything related to their disability or health that isn't appropriate to the role. It would also be unlawful for you to not consider them for the position on the basis of what they have told you, and they could take action via an employment tribunal if they believe that they have been discriminated against after sharing this information.
You can, however, ask them questions about their health or disability when an offer of employment has been made. But, the questions can only focus on whether any reasonable adjustments need to be made for the individual relating to the recruitment process or their ability to carry out the role.
If your business deals with construction and you're recruiting staff to put up scaffolding, you can, for example, ask individuals about whether they are able to physically climb ladders and scaffolding as this is an essential part of the role.
Safeguard Your Employees Through Effective Policies
Bringing up the subject of discriminatory treatment with an employer is never easy for an employee, especially as many fear that they won't be taken seriously or will face negative repercussions.
It's good practice to have a clear procedure in place for employees that focuses on how they can report discriminatory treatment, such as first approaching their manager or member of HR. It should also outline what steps you will take to resolve the matter if you find that they have been discriminated against – this could include considering whether disciplinary action is needed or whether a process or policy within the business needs to be changed to stop the problem from occurring again.
Communicating this process to your staff is vital, and might even prevent the situation from escalating.
Crack Down On Inappropriate Behaviour In The Workplace
Whilst it's not uncommon to find friendly banter amongst colleagues in workplaces, it can easily get out of hand and when it does, someone usually ends up getting hurt.
Harassment and inappropriate comments or jokes are some of the main reasons behind cases of discrimination in the workplace. 1 in 5 mothers, for example, have admitted to experiencing harassment or negative comments relating to their pregnancy from colleagues and even from their employers.
Creating an inclusive and open working environment is essential for employers, where employees have the confidence to know that they can approach you about any issues and all staff know that there will be consequences for inappropriate and offensive behaviour.
Check Your Policies For Indirect Discrimination
Some forms of discrimination are quite easy to identify, but when it comes to indirect discrimination do you know how it can impact your business?
Indirect discrimination can happen when a policy or rule in your business applies to all staff but puts a specific group of individuals at a disadvantage or conflicts with a protected characteristic – such as religion.
Christmas and Easter tend to be busy times of the year for some businesses, which is why they might have policies in place that limit the annual leave employees can have or stop them from taking time off.
But, if employees were allowed to take time off for religious festivals at other times in the year this policy could be viewed as indirectly discriminating against employees who are Christian.
Spotting potential problems or gaps in your policies like this isn't always easy, which is why having them reviewed by one of our legally trained experts can ensure that your business is protected in the long run.
Take A Consistent Approach
Although your employees will approach you in different circumstances, you should ideally have a set process in place for dealing with certain types of situations, such as:
- Flexible working requests
- Complaints and grievances
- Issues with performance and lateness
It's a good idea to keep accurate records and evidence of all discussions you've had with your staff – whether they were formal or informal – as this demonstrates that you've followed the right process.
Dealing with problems or requests in a fair and consistent way will reduce the risk of workplace disputes from occurring, and might even prevent your business from facing legal action through an employment tribunal.
Having an effective, comprehensive policy on dealing with discrimination in the workplace can make the world of difference to the future of your business. Whether you'd like some help in identifying areas for improvement or you want to introduce new policies, our Employment Law experts are ready to provide the support that you need.