July 15, 2024

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Employment law solicitor: how HR can help employers avoid discrimination at work claims

Leading employment law solicitor and senior law lecturer, Ian Winrow, explains how HR can guide employers so they avoid discrimination in the workplace.

I’m often asked by good employers on how they can avoid accidental discrimination in the workplace – however it seems many employers are not so cautious.

More than a quarter of UK workers told Sky they had experienced discrimination at work in a survey commissioned for National Inclusion Week last year.  This discrimination isn’t just bad for the employees involved, it’s bad for the UK economy.

A study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, for the inclusion membership organisation Involve, reveals that discrimination at work costs the UK economy £127bn in lost output each year.  Of this sum, gender discrimination (including maternity discrimination) was responsible for £123bn out of the £127bn.

So, how can HR leaders help employers get it right?

What is discrimination at work?

It helps if HR leaders can guide leaders to understand the basics.  The main law that covers discrimination at work is the Equality Act 2010, which says that a worker cannot be treated unfairly or differently based on what is described as a ‘protected characteristic’.  Equal treatment applies to employment, salary, promotion, annual leave, treatment at work and so on.  The protected characteristics include:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender Reassignment
  • Sex & sexual orientation
  • Religion or belief
  • Race
  • Marriage and Partnership
  • Pregnancy or Maternity

It is also unlawful to discriminate against an employee because someone else (such as a partner or relative) has one of these protected characteristics – such as not employing someone because you think they may need time off because their partner is disabled.

Indirect discrimination occurs where workplace rules put certain employees at a disadvantage, such as only hiring or promoting managers who can work evenings and weekends. This could be discrimination against women because they’re more likely to have childcare commitments that stop them working evenings and weekends.

If you discriminate against your employees on one of these grounds, and the matter cannot be resolved internally, then they are able to take their case to ACAS and possibly a tribunal.

However, by encouraging workplaces to adopt the right policies, culture and attitude, we can eliminate discrimination from our workplaces altogether.

Steps employers can take to avoid discrimination

Here are some areas employers should consider:

Avoiding Discrimination in the Hiring Process

Discrimination can take place before your employee starts work, so make sure your hiring process is free from bias.

  • Are you encouraging a diverse range of applicants? Don’t use language that is gender-specific and think about the experience and skills REALLY needed to do the role.
  • How do you advertise for candidates? Do you have any policies which are discriminatory, such as not hiring women below a certain age to avoid them taking time off with children?
  • Don’t just assume your workplace is unsuitable for a disabled person – you have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments, so this can’t be a reason to not interview or employ a disabled worker.

Avoiding Discrimination in the Interview process

Create a set of questions to be asked of all applicants so you can assess them objectively.  Questions on marriage, family, childcare, sickness and other caring responsibilies should be avoided – only ask questions related directly to the candidate’s ability to do the job.

Avoiding Discrimination in the workplace itself

Having the right Policies in place

Make sure you have an equal opportunities policy and diversity policy, stating your commitment and intent to equality and diversity at work. These should be supported with written procedures and processes to ensure the policies are followed.  We can help employees prepare effective policies.

Employee On-boarding

Ensure that staff and leaders are aware of and understand both your policies and their legal obligations regarding discrimination at work.  This should be part of your on-boarding process and your diversity and equal opportunities policies should form part of your employee handbook.  Obtain an employee’s signature that they have read and understood the policies and any updates you may issue.

Fostering a supportive, inclusive culture at work

Create a supportive, inclusive culture in the office.  Mental health and invisible illnesses are particular areas to be aware of, as in some cases they can be regarded as a disability.  Ensure you monitor stress among all employees – not just to avoid discrimination, but to promote better workplaces – and don’t forget to include support for managers.

Employees raising a grievance should be dealt with supportively, quickly and confidentially – and as equitably as possible. Make all staff aware of your complaints procedure and ensure Managers follow your policies and procedures to the letter.

Line Manager Training

Ensure that managers understand your diversity and equal opportunities policies so they can spot and remedy any potential discrimination early on.  It is important that these policies are enforced throughout your organisation, from board level downwards, so that managers can lead by example.  Ultimately, everyone benefits from a culture of inclusion.

Regularly review your policies

Keep your staff handbook and the policies within it up to date, diarying reviews.  When you update a policy, ensure it is circulated to all relevant staff.

Ian Winrow, Solicitor and Head of Employment Law at Bangor University, has more than 15 years experience in representing clients at employment law tribunals, acting for both employee and employer.  He says:

“Discrimination is another word for unfairness – and nobody deserves to be treated unfairly.  It’s great to work with employers who understand this.

“The number of claims at employment tribunals increased by 4 per cent to reach 178,990 last year – with disability claims being among the fastest growing sector.  The removal of tribunal fees means that lack of funds is no longer a barrier to justice for employees who have suffered from discrimination at work.

“I have spent much of my life fighting injustices in the workplace – so it’s a delight to support caring employers who want to get this right.  For more independent, professional advice, please get in touch.”