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Caroline Waters

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Caroline Waters: The Equality Act and HR


As the Red Tape Challenge website focuses on equality, Caroline Waters, BT’s director of people and policies, talks about the impact the Equality Act has had on business.

I have worked in this space for many years now and have seen many changes for the better. There is no doubt that we have come a long way since the Dagenham machinists had to strike for the right to the same pay as their male colleagues. Businesses are now taking their responsibility much more seriously than before and many have auditable processes in place.

While legislation clearly doesn’t hold all the answers, I believe the Equality Act has created a clear framework in which we can look at the concept of total inclusion at work and in society and move away from the ‘strands’ that simply don’t reflect the complexity of real life and real people.

The Act makes equality law easier to understand and implement. It has also introduced much welcomed consistency, both between protected groups and between employees, customers and other individuals upon whom we as businesses have an impact.

At BT we had to make few minor changes to our processes, as a result of the Equality Act, such as ensuring we didn’t capture information on health and disability in our recruitment procedures. However, I personally think these changes are positive and, for me, illustrate the fact that sometimes we have to question why we do things. Putting all people on a ‘level playing field’ is simply fairer it stops us making inappropriate assumptions and ensures that the workforce can be happy, healthy and productive, which helps maximise the full talent and potential of BT’s workforce. 

The Red Tape Challenge is an opportunity to put the Act into practice in a way that creates greater business opportunities. It’s true that the Equality Act has meant potentially increased costs in the short term, and even a higher level of liability and therefore financial exposure because of the levelling up of protection in some areas.  However, those companies who have the policy in place to ensure all people are treated with respect, dignity and are afforded equal opportunity have the business advantage.

This is the ‘stuff‘ that makes organisations the employer of choice and increasingly the supplier of choice.  It attracts and retains the best talent and brings in business. The opportunity costs of not taking this path more that outweigh those of ‘getting it wrong.’ 

I think the major problem for employers with legislation of this nature is that all too often new provisions need to be tested in the courts with practice being established by case law. This really isn’t helpful for business or society as it often means that we lose touch with the spirit of the legislation and become embedded in technicalities rather than seeking pragmatic approaches to making the legislation live for employees and consumers.
To help mitigate this the onus must be on legislators to make things as clear and unambiguous as possible and in this respect I feel that too many legislators are specialists without real experience of the complexity of modern work places.  Simplicity, clear timelines, real insight in to the environments in which the law will be used and tested and a  ‘right first time’ attitude are what actually make good legislation that everyone can get behind.

In my view it’s really important that employers remember both the personal needs of our employees and the role they play in the wider society – as parents, grandparents, carers, volunteers and consumers. By understanding this complexity and embracing the different perspectives it offers us we gain a better understanding of our customers and the society in which we do business. I believe it’s our difference that makes us resilient, relevant, bursting with skill and energy and that’s what creates the competitive edge however large or small the business.

Caroline Waters is BT’s director of people and policies

One Response

  1. Diversity Law

    What an excellent, balanced overview!  Thank you Caroline.

    Personally, I remain unconvinced that the bureaucratic and ‘bend-over-backwards’ application of the intentions of Diversity Law actually delivers to society-at-large consistent best-value in practice, especially in many larger and public-sector organisations .  In fact, quite the opposite.  Nor, at the other end of the scale, do I find that all smaller private-businesses in particular necessarily meet even the original intentions.   (Rather like H&S legislation and many other elements of Employment Law?)

    I don’t have enough space here to just justify such bold assertions in detail, but for those who tavel widely amongst many organsiations, I have some confidence that I am not alone in observing this. 

    But the overall principles must be right?  And I fully support them.


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