As an employer you are legally required to treat your employees fairly and with respect. As part of these obligations you cannot treat people differently because of certain characteristics, if you do then you may be guilty of discrimination in the workplace.
The characteristics protected by the Equality Act 2010 are:
- Sexual orientation
- Gender reassignment
- Marriage and civil partnership
- Religion or belief
- Pregnancy and maternity
If you do treat a member of staff differently because of any of those protected characteristics you may face a claim in the employment tribunal for discrimination. Discrimination in the workplace cases can be some of the most complex and expensive cases that an employer can face and therefore should be avoided at all costs.
There are a number of different forms of discriminatory conduct:
- Direct discrimination – This happens when an individual is treated less favourably than a colleague because of a protected characteristic (e.g. someone is sacked because they are homosexual)
- Indirect discrimination – If a company has a provision, criterion or practice which is applied across the company but has a disproportionately negative effect on particular groups of people then such practice could be deemed to be indirect discrimination (e.g. a practice where members of staff must work on a Saturday may prevent practicing Jews from observing the Sabbath)
- Harassment – Unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic which violates a person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment (e.g. inappropriate comments or actions from a male member of staff towards a female member of staff, or vice-versa, could be sexual harassment)
- Victimisation – This happens where a member of staff is treated badly or punished because they have made, or people think they have made, a complaint about discrimination or have given evidence in a discrimination case
- Discrimination arising from a disability (disability discrimination only) – unfavourable treatment because of something arising in consequence of a person’s disability (e.g. someone who suffers from cancer, and has had a number of days absence because of their condition, is dismissed because of their absence record)
- Failure to make reasonable adjustments (disability discrimination only) – Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace or workplace practices to help disabled employees to carry out their work (e.g. an employer may be required to provide specialist software to help a blind or partially sighted employee to work on a computer)
If you are faced with a situation where you believe that you may inadvertently discriminate a member of staff, or a member of staff has raised a complaint or made an allegation that they have been subjected to discrimination, it is important to act quickly and carefully.
Our specialist employment law solicitors can assist and advise you on how to deal with any issues or allegations of discrimination to ensure that your business is as fully protected as possible.
The employment team can also draft equality policies, including anti-bullying and harassment policies, for inclusion in your staff handbook, which are a useful tool to help management and staff stay on the right side of the law.