The Equality Act 2017 received Royal Assent in July 2017 and its substantive discrimination provisions will come into force in phases over the next two years. The legislation is unquestionably one of the most significant pieces of social legislation to be advanced in the last couple of decades.
The scandal emanating from Hollywood around #MeToo, which went viral on social media in October 2017, will certainly ensure that discrimination issues remain in the spotlight, as will the reporting in relation to the disparity in gender pay; another key topic dominating the media headlines.
Aside from the multiple social arguments for why the legislation is important, it is fundamental to recognise that there is also a pure and simple business case for diversity. Companies that are more diverse are more successful. Numerous studies have reached this conclusion. Fairness in the workplace is a vital part of a successful business. Happy employees make for a harmonious workplace.
Commitment to equality and diversity is fundamental to businesses, providing the environment, support and culture that will enable all of its employees to flourish and to achieve its objectives. This commitment needs to be led from the top down in every organisation. At board level, a diverse governing body provides diversity of expertise and insights, and robust decision-making.
The Equality Act will affect all businesses of all sizes island-wide, whether big or small and across all sectors. Governance leaders will need to take a proactive role in ensuring that companies comply with the legislation as when the legislation comes into force, both employers and their employees can be held responsible and liable for their actions where they discriminate.
Under the Equality Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against people at work because of nine areas termed in the legislation as protected characteristics. These are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
It is important to note that the rights extend beyond the scope of employment and also apply to the provision of goods and services. Therefore, if a customer has been treated unfairly by a trader or service provider, like a shop, bank or pub and it is because of an individual's protected characteristic, they may have a case that they have been discriminated against and can take action accordingly.
One of the aims of the Equality Act is to improve equal job opportunities and fairness for employees, workers and job applicants. Organisations should have policies in place to support this and, just as importantly, to prevent discrimination from occurring in the workplace.
There are a number of steps that an employer or organisation can undertake now to ensure that they are well-placed to embrace the new legislation. Employers should ensure that all their existing and any new policies and procedures are compatible with their duties under the Equality Act 2010. In relation to reviewing and drafting contracts of employment, employers should be aware that some clauses contained in an employee's contract of employment will be unenforceable when the legislation comes into force. Employers should ensure that line managers are aware of the steps they should take to prevent harassment of employees and of how to act in response to allegations of harassment.
Originally published in the June/Summer 2018 issue of Agenda Isle of Man
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