At the beginning of December 2003, two sets of employment regulations come into force which could have a significant impact in your workplace. The first of these, The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003, become law on 1 December, with The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 taking effect the following day.
The regulations aim to combat discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and religious beliefs. Sexual orientation is defined as heterosexuality, homosexuality or bi-sexuality. The definition of religion is more controversial, as it includes “any religion, religious belief or similar philosophical belief”.
Both sets of regulations apply to all workers throughout the employment relationship. This includes the recruitment process, in the workplace, on dismissal and, in certain circumstances, after the employment has finished (for example in terms of references).
Discrimination can take many forms and the regulations have been designed to address the problem, however it occurs. As such, direct and indirect discrimination, victimisation and harassment are all covered by the legislation.
Direct discrimination occurs where A treats B less favourably than he or she treats or would treat other persons. Indirect discrimination occurs where a provision, criterion or practice, which is applied generally, puts someone at a disadvantage and cannot be shown to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
The most important thing for employers to bear in mind when considering these regulations is that the onus always lies with the respondent. This means that if a tribunal considers the applicant to have sufficient evidence, it is up to the respondent – usually the employer – to show that discrimination did not take place and/or that the difference in treatment was justified.
Be prepared – top 10 tips from Thomas Eggar
Depending on the size of the organisation, there are several practical things you can do as an employer to minimise the risk of legal action by a disgruntled employee and demonstrate to your employees that you are making a genuine effort to understand and support their needs and rights. This will create a more positive working relationship, thereby facilitating discussion if further changes need to be implemented.
By keeping the communication channels open, your employees are more likely to discuss issues with you before they become a problem. Otherwise, the first you hear of it might be from their legal representatives!