Equality and Diversity in Business: More Than Just Form-filling and Political Correctness
Important note: This information applies to companies and individuals in the United Kingdom only
I have heard it said that 'no man is an island'. In business, this is certainly true. Whether a company is brand new or has been around for years, it is crucial not only to have the right people but to have the right balance of people. This means having people of different skill-sets, different backgrounds (creative, business, intellectual, academic), different cultures and yes, different ethnic minorities. This does not mean reactively hiring people just because the government or legislation says so or because you have some quota that you have to fill. It means proactively, looking for ways to encourage and promote equality within the organisation. The law not only punishes discrimination but clarifies things so that employers can prevent discrimination. In the sometimes complex world of corporate politics and boardroom drama, the fundamental basics that underpin this crucial area are sometimes forgotten not only to the detriment of the business but to all the individuals involved in it.
Knowledge is power is a popular but true saying and it is true that many organisations fall foul of discrimination laws due to ignorance. There are those who carry out direct but subtle as well indirect forms of discrimination and it is important to know your rights - as a business and as a corporation. So here goes.
What the law says
In the United Kingdom, the law says that one cannot discriminate against anyone based on:
- How old they are
- Whether they are male or female
- Their sexuality
- Their race/ethnicity
- Their religion (or lack of it)
- Whether they have a disability or not
Furthermore, the law prohibits discrimination 'by association.' An example of this is mocking someone because one of their relatives has a physical impairment. Employment law does not just cover employees but applicants and contractors as well. So whether you are applying for a job or have been with the same company for years, the law is on your side.
Discrimination can generally be divided into four different types:
- Direct discrimination - this means treating someone less favourably because they are a certain race, gender, religion etc
- Indirect discrimination - an example of this would be implementing a policy that places a certain person or group at a disadvantage
- Harassment - some definitions given are as follows:
"the act of systematic and/or continued unwanted and annoying actions of one party or a group" (http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/harassment)
"unwanted conduct that violates a person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment." (www.reading.ac.uk/personnel/rdg only/.../harassment_guidance.doc)
- Victimisation - this is also known as bullying and is defined as "offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient." (http://www.cipd.co.uk/subjects/dvsequl/harassmt/harrass.htm)
Like many things in life, common sense has to be applied or else HR departments and processes will grind to a halt. It can be very difficult to make distinctions and lines are becoming increasingly blurred. For example, when does friendly banter become discrimination? If a woman makes the choice to wear a short skirt to work, is it sexist for a man to comment on it? Is it sexual harassment to tell a cute guy he has a nice physique? I say not, but common sense and some degree of moral and accountability must prevail.
Monitoring equality and diversity in the workplace
This is something that every business and employee should be passionate about. Different people bring a variety of experiences, capabilities as well as opinions to the workplace. Cultures, backgrounds and personalities cultivated within an open, honest, diverse-friendly workplace can be developed when it is done right. This goes beyond the administrative form filling and selection quotas that are the norm in many organisations. Proactive and collective monitoring (and promotion) of equality and diversity is not only good for the people, it is good for your business.
Monitoring this area means gathering information and examining with an objective eye. This can then be compared with data collected from other sources such as job-seekers, employees from your company, other businesses, even government data. No-one and no system is perfect. But what monitoring looks for is any considerable difference between the norms and what is happening in your company. The key to success here is to get your employees involved in the process. Provide information about what you are doing, encourage questions and treat their responses and comments with respect (and confidentiality). When dealing with applicants who want to work for your firm, use the equality and diversity forms but also tell them how your company is promoting and maintaining equality and diversity. This can be by letter, email, within a publication or even as part of the application pack. It is crucial that this form remains separate from the rest of the application (even if it is included in the pack). Let the applicants know that it is not used as a method of shortlisting but for gaining information on your company's monitoring processes. These forms usually ask for an applicant's age, sex, gender, sexual orientation, race and religion. Many smaller businesses sometimes find this a little too much, so instead settle for customer satisfaction or staff feedback form. That is what I have recently introduced into my business and it can be a very useful tool.
What information you need to be looking for
First and foremost, do not wait till someone has been employed for years before doing this. At every stage of employment, it is common sense to monitor this area closely. You will need to find out:
- Levels of applications and who is applying for the jobs advertised
- Who is being promoted (or not)
- Whether there are any grievances
- Who has been disciplined and what for
- The training provided to your employees
This is by no means an exhaustive list but does give some insight as to what you need to keep your eye on.
When you are looking at your data, it is important to understand what you are looking for and not be unreasonable in your expectations. Very few companies have the 'perfect' balance but what they aim for is to get as close as possible. Be thorough but not obsessive. Be focused but not narrow-minded. In the United Kingdom, a widely used general guideline is the 'four-fifths rule.' This is mainly used to measure recruitment rates within groups e.g. men and women, different races and ethnicities. The rule suggests that if any group is less than four-fifths of the rate group with the higher or highest success rate, there may be some bias - intentional or not. It can be used in every stage of the recruitment process. When used effectively, can provide information that you and your company can build on in this area. Although not absolute, it can be a useful tool to see if there is an area of concern that needs further investigation. If you have a small business, then you have to make a judgement call.
In the next in this miniest of mini series, we will look at promoting equality and diversity. I hope that this article has shown how important this area is. Cutting corners will only harm the employees as well as the business and will land you in hot water with the law.
Take care and God bless...
Ngozi Nwabineli © 09th July 2010