Abilities first – how to avoid workplace discrimination

Discrimination in the workplace continues to be an issue, despite being against the law. For those at the receiving end, the personal cost is high and employers who fail to treat their workers equally and fairly can face hefty damages.

This was demonstrated recently in the case of IT manager Richard Hastings who was awarded £1 million from a London hospital trust by a tribunal which found that his managers had shown “conscious and unconscious bias” because he was black.

Mr Hastings had accused a group of contractors of driving dangerously in the hospital car park. They responded by racially abusing him. The contractors’ manager complained to the hospital that he had assaulted two of their employees. Despite the CCTV evidence disproving this and Mr Hastings’ unblemished work record of nearly 20 years, the hospital took disciplinary action and dismissed him for gross misconduct. The tribunal ruled that the hospital had chosen to disbelieve Mr Hastings because of his race and said there had been failings in the disciplinary process.

The bias shown in this instance was officially identified but there are probably many times when it’s not. In other words, employers judge people on specific and perceived characteristics, while their skills and performance are given a back seat.

The mental health charity Mind lists several instances of discrimination on its website – www.mind.org.uk – such as the person with bipolar disorder who was denied the chance to apply for a new post that they were fully able to do simply because of their mental health problem. Then there was the woman who was treated badly by her employer simply because she looked after a relative with a mental illness.

>See also: Employers can stop class discrimination – but first they have to define it

Focus on abilities

The law is quite clear on workplace discrimination. Under the Equality Act 2010, it is illegal to treat people unfavourably based on age, disability, gender, sexuality, religion, race or pregnancy and maternity.

There are different types of discrimination:

  • Direct discrimination – treating someone differently because of one of the above characteristics
  • Indirect discrimination – applying a policy or rule that puts certain employees at a disadvantage
  • Arising from a disability – where a person is treated badly because of their disability
  • Failing to make reasonable adjustments to support disabled employees
  • Harassment – where an employee is treated in a way that is offensive, frightening, degrading, humiliating or distressing
  • Victimisation – where an employee is treated badly for complaining about discrimination

Employers need to be proactive in avoiding discrimination at work by focusing on abilities. Here are some recommended steps.

1 Equal opportunities policy

Most companies and large organisations have some form of equal opportunities policy. Those that don’t should create one. The policy should cover all the characteristics specified in the Equality Act, stressing the different types of discrimination and help staff to understand their rights and responsibilities.

2 Education and training

The equal opportunities policy should be clearly explained to the workforce and included in the employee handbook, if there is one. Include discrimination training in induction courses so that new joiners are aware of the dos and don’ts from the beginning. Consider training managers and supervisors to spot where discriminative behaviour occurs and how they should respond.

3 Company culture

Encourage a culture where people respect each other’s differences. If there is a cause for complaint, make sure it is dealt with quickly and in confidence. It’s important for people to feel that they are being listened to and their differences respected.

4 Enforcement and review

An equal opportunities policy is only as good as the paper it’s written on if it’s not enforced properly. Also, it’s important to review the policy regularly to ensure it’s being applied effectively.

Companies that fail to take their equal opportunities responsibilities seriously, should remember that the law is there to protect victims of workplace discrimination. The Citizens Advice Bureau – www.citizensadvice.org.uk – clearly states the rights of individuals at work and what they can do if they experience any form of discrimination.

After all, if the London hospital trust had treated Richard Hastings fairly, they wouldn’t be £1 million worse off. What’s more, he might still be working for them.

>See also: The Equality Act 2010 and reasonable adjustments