Equality and Reality

The Equality Bill is slowly making its way through Parliament. This long and cumbersome draft (over 500 pages!) is another attempt to ‘simplify’ employment law. It will trigger the rewriting of many a policy, the collection of more data, and ever more litigation as the new definitions and terminology are clarified through the legal appeal process.

Any organisation that allows its recruitment, management and retention policies to be governed by the ‘minimum’ provisions of employment law is doomed to constant rewrites and ‘add-ons’ that impede the organisation’s function.

A healthy organisation needs the best staff it can get at every level of seniority. It is highly unlikely that excluding women, people from a particular race, religion, orientation, age or disability will generate this result. Aside from any legal or moral argument, group exclusions are not an effective way to choose who gets which job. We might as well say everyone wearing shoes and not trainers today is the Board, and everyone else is not!

The problems of ‘indirect discrimination’ disappear if an organisation properly assesses what needs to be achieved and how. If there is a genuine requirement for a job to be done at a particular time, in a particular way, and there truly is no alternative, then imposing that requirement on an individual is unlikely to be indirect discrimination.

It is the lack of investigation of alternatives (and the lack of documentation of this process) that causes most of the problems. We still tend to think – the job must be done this way – because it is currently being done that way. This is a particular problem with the part-time/flexible working debate. Most organisations are happy to have junior staff work part time (duties permitting), but many declare that senior jobs must be accompanied by full time (if not full time plus) attendance. This stops at board level though, where many directors are on the board of multiple companies or organisations.

The ‘compliance only’ approach to equality can result in an ‘inputs measurement’ approach to work. But surely now more than ever before, the real issue is not the inputs but the results. It is results that deliver customer service, profitability and stakeholder approval. There are few organisations who can survive the next few years on ‘good attempt, nice inputs’.

The ‘compliance’ approach is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve good ‘equality’ objectives. In fact the compliance approach can give ‘equality’ a bad name, in that it can come pretty close to imposing quotas or favouring one group over another.

Whilst there is a moral and political argument for putting historically disadvantaged groups into improved positions within society, in an employment context you corrupt the effectiveness of the organisation if you extend the concept beyond enabling those individuals to attain the necessary qualifications/experience/adjustments in order to be able to compete effectively.

We need the best people we can find to help navigate our organisations through these troubling times. Wherever those people come from and whatever ‘minority boxes’ they do or don’t tick on your diversity survey, it is vital to find the best, brief them well, and let them thrive.


Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy. Tel: 08452 303050 Fax: 08452 303060 www.irenicon.co.uk

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Filed under discrimination, employment law, Equality Bill

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