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Practical tips on the new discrimination regulations

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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!

  • Update your equal opportunities policy to take account of the new regulations (if you don’t have a policy already, you should put one in place)

  • Publicise the policy internally – there is no use having an excellent policy if no one knows about it

  • Audit procedures and policies, such as benefits given to unmarried couples and policies for time off, to ensure they do not conflict with the regulations

  • Consider surveying your workforce to find out the type of issues you are likely to be dealing with, such as particular religions, so you can research their beliefs and requirements

  • Train yourself and your managers on the regulations and the issues they are likely to raise, particularly in terms of recruitment

  • Consider providing facilities for prayer, such as a ‘quiet room’

  • Look at your culture and try to take steps to prevent indirect discrimination, such as ensuring that a vegetarian option is provided in the staff canteen

  • Consider using the regulations as an excuse to train all staff or update them on dignity at work

  • Develop an open communication forum so any issues can be resolved quickly

  • Include a discrimination feedback section in staff appraisals.
  • Related items

    Firms urged to review diversity policies

    Feature article: dealing with the religious discrimination regulations

    ACAS publishes sexual orientation and religion guides

    Employers “unprepared” for new religion, belief and sexual orientation legislation

    Asking the unaskable – requesting details on race, religion and disability

    Equalities monitoring – is anyone asking a question about either religion and/or sexual orientation?

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