Don’t panic over the Sex Discrimination Act

Much has been made of a change to the Sex Discrimination Act brought in on 1 October, with lobby groups claiming it will allow employees to hold small businesses to ransom. But employment law experts are warning small businesses not to overreact.

The Equal Treatment Directive was introduced alongside a variety of other legislative changes to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace but has had the Forum of Private Business (FPB) up in arms.

‘Employers will view these changes to tribunals with a sense of utter dread. Tribunals are already bleeding businesses dry because they are so heavily loaded in favour of employees,’ raged Rex Garratt, spokesman for the FPB. ‘Businesses face legalised blackmail as the costs of defending a case deny them justice from vexatious ex-employees on the make, supported by ambulance-chasing advisers who encourage doubtful claims.’

However, there is no need to panic, according to Richard Smith, employment services director at Croner. ‘The vast majority of business owners should be reassured that they will already be operating within the law and that these minor amendments will have no material effect on the running of their business,’ he reassures.

The most significant, and controversial, change to the Act concerns the definition of indirect discrimination. It will now state that a person discriminates against a woman if “he applies to her a provision, criterion or practice which he applies or would apply equally to a man, but which puts or would put women at a particular disadvantage when compared with men, which puts her at that disadvantage; and which he cannot show to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’. So at least that’s clear.

Croner offers the following advice to businesses:

  • Devise and implement an equal opportunities policy and ensure that it states clearly that there must be no discrimination or harassment against any employee or job applicant on grounds of gender, pregnancy, trans-gender status or part-time status.
  • Ensure that all line managers, supervisors and those with responsibility for recruitment are familiar with the organisation’s equal opportunities policy.
  • Take all complaints of harassment seriously, investigate the circumstances thoroughly and, if the complaint is well founded, take prompt steps to put a stop to the behaviour that is causing offence.
  • Take all reasonably practicable steps to prevent staff from behaving in a discriminatory way, including providing training in equality issues and communicating the organisation’s equality policies and procedures.
  • Put in place a system for monitoring that will enable a check to be made that recruitment and promotion selection practices are not discriminatory on grounds of sex.

To achieve best practice, the following is also advised:

  • Equal opportunities policies should be checked to ensure they include all forms of sex discrimination and harassment.
  • Employers should take positive steps to ensure their equal opportunities policies are put into practice in every aspect of recruitment and employment.
  • There should be a clear and accessible procedure available to employees to complain about sex or sexual harassment.
  • Any redundancy selection criteria, should take into account the need to avoid sex discrimination.
  • Employers who operate a compulsory retirement age must ensure that they apply the same retirement age to both men and women.
  • Employers should familiarise themselves with the Equal Opportunities Commission’s code of practice on sex discrimination.

Related Topics

sexual harassment