Jon Heuvel looks at the importance of business owners monitoring workforce diversity, navigating regulations and mitigating any potential risks.
For firms wanting to be seen as an employer of choice, embedding a strong equal opportunities culture is fundamental. Monitoring diversity is a crucial component of ensuring a successful strategy; not only can it can help highlight workplace inequality, it can identify the underlying causes of discrimination and ultimately help to remove unfairness and disadvantage for the business’ most valuable asset – its employees.
Most business owners know that earning a reputation for having a widespread culture of discrimination and bullying is extremely detrimental, not only in terms of external perception but also when looking to attract and retain talent. A poor diversity record can also stunt the development of a business, preventing the business from attracting the best talent.
Diversity isn’t just limited to achieving balance in terms of racial origins, sexual orientation, religious views, age and family situations; it extends to being open to taking on employees on different, non-standard, working contracts. For example, an employer choosing not to employ any part-time workers could be missing out on extremely talented pools of potential employees, such as working mums looking for more flexible working opportunities.
Monitoring the workforce profile
While most employers these days have put diversity measures in place, fewer have had the foresight to recognise the importance and value to be gained from consistent and regular monitoring of their workforce profile and regularly testing and revisiting the effectiveness of their policies.
There is no legal obligation for businesses to review diversity within their workforce, but there is an obligation on employers to do everything in their power to prevent discrimination, and the two are closely linked.
To monitor diversity effectively, employers should look at the whole lifecycle of the workforce – from recruitment stages to when considering promotions or selecting individuals for redundancy. In all these situations, capturing data about the successful – and also the unsuccessful – individuals helps to build-up a full picture of how well the business is doing at promoting and maintaining its policies.
Diversity monitoring questionnaires are a good way of gathering the necessary information. These forms monitor the workforce typically by gender, age and race, among other categories. If particular employees seek to pursue internal vacancies, diversity monitoring should also be included alongside these application forms to ensure company records are kept up to date. However, to ensure the information provided does not influence the decisionmaking process, diversity forms should be separated from any other relevant paperwork (such as a job application form or CV) and, ideally, all information that is collected should be anonymised.
There may be instances, however, where anonymity is not possible. In such circumstances, data protection obligations will arise, and much of the data (for example, information about disabilities, health conditions, sexual orientation, religion – and even about trade union membership) will amount to ‘sensitive personal data’, meaning that there are further restrictions on its use.
For existing workers, it is important to provide diversity training, which can open up communication and provide an opportunity for employees to learn more about the recruitment strategy, reinforcing that decisions about hiring are based on finding the best candidate for the role and are not just an effort to tick the diversity box. It’s also important to relay the benefits of a diverse workplace to leadership members to ensure they share the firm’s stance when managing their teams.
As well as this, offering benefits aimed at assisting specific groups within the workforce, such as onsite childcare for parents, is a good way for businesses to demonstrate to potential new and existing employees that they are diversity-friendly.
Even for firms with a robust diversity strategy in place from the outset, a number of issues can arise if they fail to regularly relay their diversity and anti-discrimination policies to the entire workforce.
Increasingly, employers are becoming involved in discrimination cases arising from complaints of harassment and bullying between employees in the form of workplace ‘banter’. Cases such as these are potentially hard to resolve as they often rely on one person’s word against another. Something interpreted as an innocent comment by one person could be perceived as bullying and harassment by another party. Trying to portray the behaviour as mere banter does not help – the test in such cases is how the behaviour was perceived by the “victim”, not what was intended by the perpetrator.
Discrimination and diversity in the workplace often go hand in hand, and in order for business owners to mitigate the risk of running into any potential disputes, a watchful eye is crucial. A vigorous approach to workplace policies, coupled with diligent reviewing processes, will make for not only a suitably diverse workforce but an open and accepting workplace culture.
Jon Heuvel is a partner and employment law specialist at Shakespeare Martineau.