Every business likes to think that they are balanced, equal and compliant employers. With campaigns like ‘Balance For Better’, businesses are being encouraged and sometimes scrutinised to make sure that they are being as equal and fair as they should be. What should businesses be thinking about and what should employees be aware of? Tom Stroud talks to employment law specialist Alison Colley.

What steps can businesses take to move towards equality in the workplace?

It is important for a successful business to have a balanced workplace that draws talent from aspects of the community and to ensure that the right skills and experience are being utilised. There is legal protection from discrimination for a variety of ‘protected characteristics’, and these are: Age, Disability, Gender reassignment, Marriage and civil partnership, Pregnancy and maternity, Race, Religion or belief, Sex and Sexual orientation.

The first step is to monitor and check what is happening. If businesses identify any equality issues they can take steps to address them.

Contrary to popular belief employers cannot ‘positively discriminate’ (although there are some limited exceptions in respect of disabilities). However, employers can take ‘positive action’ to address disadvantage or to increase participation by those who share a protected characteristic where there is low participation.

This means that, for example, if an organisation has a disproportionate number of men in management or senior roles, they could implement a programme of mentoring or training to support women to develop the skills and experience needed for those senior roles. However, when it came to an interview for a promotion, they would have to apply the same selection criteria to all candidates and make their decision based on the best person for the job.

There was a recent case in the Employment Tribunal on this issue where a 25-year-old, heterosexual, white male was refused employment with Cheshire Police because, although he had the right skills and experience for the job, he was turned down because the Police force were actively looking to expand the diversity in their police officers. The applicant in question was successful in his discrimination claim.

What can businesses do about gender balance and a gender pay gap?

Whilst gender pay gap reporting is only mandatory for businesses with 250 or more employees on the 5th of April each year, I would encourage all businesses, regardless of size to consider what their gender pay gap is and to monitor this, preferably before employees notice that there is any issue. Employers can then take steps to level the gap and ensure that work of the same or similar kind is paid at the same rate.

Employers can avoid issues arising by having a set pay structure in place and sticking to it. It is statistically proven that men will ask for more money when they are applying for a job and will be more likely to ask for a pay rise during their employment than a woman, and therefore you can avoid an inadvertent gender pay gap from arising by having a set pay process and review in place.

Where do employers get it wrong?

Unfortunately, employers are still not recognising that a mental health condition such as depression and/or anxiety may be a disability in the same way as a physical disability and are not making the necessary adjustments or are treating employees to their detriment as a result of their condition. In many cases that colleagues and I have dealt with, this leads to significant harm to the employee’s health and causes long term sickness absences. I am pleased to say that many of the employers we work with on the Island are recognising the need to take this issue seriously and are implementing a mental health policy and some are even sending staff to mental health first aid courses.

The second most common area that we deal with is employees who are being dismissed or treated terribly because they have taken or are going to take maternity leave. I am shocked by the number of employers who still have old fashioned views about working mothers and the amount of time women are ‘made redundant’ or demoted when they have been on maternity leave or return to work. In my own profession there are real problems with the numbers of women who are leaving the profession when they have children because of the outdated attitudes of employers.

How do we celebrate moves towards equality?

The key thing is to celebrate and highlight success as an example to others. One of the biggest issues particularly with women is confidence and therefore shining a light on successful women is important. It is however important that the messaging is right and not patronising.

My experience from being involved in various initiatives to promote women in business is that often, men (and many women), will say “when’s men’s day” or “what is being done for men”. My response to this is that it is not about putting women ahead of men, but rather it is about bringing balance so that both men and women are on an equal and level playing field. The problem is that women are not at the same level as men in many aspects of work and business and this is why campaigns such as the recent ‘Balance for Better’ campaign for International Women’s Day are needed.

I think that it is easily forgotten that historically women have not shared the same rights as men, for example as recently as the 1970’s women were not, in many industries, allowed to continue to work after they were married. This is really only in our recent history and it will take generations for the balance to be achieved, therefore celebrating success where possible without being patronising is important.

Being an inclusive and fair employer is crucial to the success of businesses, especially on the Island, where the pool of talent is narrow. In my opinion, in the post-Brexit era, it is only going to get more difficult to recruit and retain the best employees and word spreads quickly about those businesses who are poor employers!

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