Apr 18, 2023

The Equality Act

When I first started working in Human Resources (way back in the last century!)  there were three key pieces of equality legislation: the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, the Race Relations Act of 1976, and the “new” Disability Discrimination Act of 1995.

Further legislation followed on sexual orientation, religion and belief, and age discrimination.  In 2010 these were wrapped up into the Equality Act, which has 9 “protected characteristics”: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion, sex and sexual orientation.

The purpose of any equality legislation is to ensure that having a certain protected characteristic doesn’t stop you having the same opportunity to obtain and retain work and to progress in your career; to protect people from experiencing disadvantages and unequal treatment as a result of prejudice and stereotyping.

The Equality Act talks about different types of discrimination, such as direct and indirect, harassment and victimisation.  

Indirect discrimination can be hard sometimes for employers to understand – they haven’t set out to directly discriminate against anyone, and the act itself appears to be neutral.  However where it has a disproportionate adverse effect on people with a protected characteristic then it is discriminatory, unless the employer can clearly show justification.  For example it used to be quite common to have height requirements in certain jobs such as the police force, but this was understood to be more likely to discriminate against women and people of certain ethnic origins.

A broader understanding

Over time there have been developments in our understanding of equality law and those affected.  For example, the term “disability” was initially a very stereotypical view of someone with a physical disability, probably someone in a wheelchair.  Since then we have come to understand that the definition of disability may include long term health conditions including cancer, mental health conditions such as depression, and neurodiversity such as autism or ADHD. We are now starting to see employment law cases considering whether Long Covid would also fall under this definition.

What next?

In terms of future development, the Worker Protection Amendment is currently making its way through parliament: this would create new legal liabilities for employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent an employee being harassed in the course of their employment by a third parties such as customers or clients.

Aside from the central Equality Act, there are other pieces of legislation that have had an impact in this area – increased parental rights, the right to request flexible working, gender pay reporting – and we may anticipate further developments.  The right to request flexible working, for example, is set to move to being a day 1 right, rather than requiring 6 months service.

A change of mindset

Although equality legislation remains a crucial issue to be aware of, we find in our work with businesses that there is a shift in the way we talk about these matters – from a “tick the box” compliance to a broader message of inclusion, that starts with looking at an individual’s skills and strengths and then considers what might be getting in the way of utilising them, and how we can remove barriers.  Understanding the importance of hearing from a wider range of voices means not just avoiding the “stick” of legislation but focusing on the “carrot”; the benefits of a more diverse and inclusive workforce, better able to represent the customers or client group they serve.