With a formal equal opportunities policy, you can help to ensure that all members of your workforce are treated fairly and in accordance with the law.
In this guide, we look at the importance of implementing an equal opportunities policy, and what this should contain, as well as what the law says about employers’ obligations in relation to equality and diversity in the workplace.
What is an equal opportunities policy?
An equal opportunities policy is a document that sets out in writing an employer’s commitment to fairness, and fair working practices, including the measures that a company or organisation will take to help eliminate and prevent unfair treatment at work.
This can relate to a number of different areas of employment including: recruitment; employment terms and conditions; pay and benefits; promotion and transfer opportunities; training; dismissal; and redundancy. It can also relate to various different types of unfair treatment, including direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation, as well as a failure to make reasonable adjustments to remove any disadvantage caused by a disability.
The policy should provide a clear statement setting out the stance to be taken by the organisation in relation to unfair treatment, providing guidance on how people at work should be treated, and how any contraventions of these guidelines will be dealt with.
Equal opportunities laws in the UK
There is no specific legal requirement to provide a written equal opportunities policy at work. Nonetheless, under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to discriminate against someone in the workplace by reason of one or more of the nine protected characteristics. A written statement of the organisation’s commitment is best practice to ensure these legal requirements are met consistently throughout your organisation.
These characteristics include:
- Gender reassignment
- Marriage and civil partnership
- Pregnancy and maternity
- Religion or belief
- Sex, and
- Sexual orientation.
As an employer, you may be held accountable in relation to tribunal claims for any acts of discrimination or harassment carried out by a member of staff by reason of any one or more of these characteristics, unless you can show that you have done everything you could to prevent it from taking place.
Under the 2010 Act, unlawful discrimination can take place in the following different forms:
- Direct discrimination: when someone is treated less favourably than others because they possess a protected characteristic, or because they are perceived to have, or they are associated with someone who has, a protected characteristic.
- Indirect discrimination: when there is a policy, rule or procedure in place at work that applies equally to everyone, but puts someone who possesses a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage when compared with others.
- Harassment: when someone’s dignity is being violated at work through unwanted conduct linked to a protected characteristic, or where this conduct creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.
- Victimisation: when someone is being treated unfairly at work because they have complained about, or supported a complaint in relation to, discrimination or harassment.
It is also unlawful to fail to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace to minimise or eliminate any disadvantage experienced by someone suffering from a disability.
Does your organisation need an equal opportunities policy?
While there is no legal requirement to set out your stance in writing on discrimination in the workplace, there are a number of reasons why every employer should have in place a written and robust equal opportunities policy. These include the following:
- To demonstrate your commitment to equality and diversity within the workplace in accordance with the law. In this way prospective and existing staff can feel confident that any employment decisions relating to, for example, recruitment, progression, dismissal and redundancy, will be based solely on employee merit and employer need, without risk of discrimination by reason of a protected characteristic.
- To raise awareness about discrimination, harassment and victimisation in the workplace, and to explain to your staff the consequences of unacceptable conduct at work. It is not uncommon for people to unintentionally discriminate against others, but by making them aware of what constitutes unfair treatment, and the potential disciplinary sanctions that could follow, can be an effective way of curbing this type of behaviour.
- To inform staff about how to handle incidences of discrimination, including how to raise a grievance at work. Knowing that their employer stands firm on fairness, and that complaints will be taken seriously, can be an effective way of creating an environment in which victims feel able to come forward to report discriminatory issues, without fear of reprisal.
- To create a positive and productive working environment in which everyone is treated fairly and with respect. By fostering a fair and inclusive workplace culture, where diversity is openly encouraged, and incidents of discrimination, harassment and victimisation are not tolerated, you will help to increase staff retention rates and boost employee morale.
- To protect against potential legal action, where the absence of a written policy on equal opportunities is likely to reflect badly on you as an employer in the event of a claim for unlawful discrimination or unfair dismissal. The benefits of having a written policy not only include the ability to better defend your working practices and decision-making before a tribunal, but this is also likely to lead to a reduced risk of complaints from disgruntled job applicants or existing members of staff.
Failure to comply with equal opportunities obligations
By failing to comply with your obligations on equal opportunities in the workplace, for example, by adopting discriminatory recruitment or working practices, or by failing to take steps to prevent harassment or victimisation, you run the risk of complaints being made by a disgruntled worker or job applicant.
In circumstances where a grievance cannot be resolved internally at work, this could lead to a formal complaint being lodged with an employment tribunal, leaving you to defend a costly and time-consuming claim for unlawful discrimination or unfair dismissal.
A successful claim against you could result in an order for reinstatement where an employee has been unfairly dismissed. You could also be ordered to pay a considerable sum in damages. As such, it is essential that you take steps to minimise your exposure to any legal risks, and reduce the possibility of incidences of discrimination in the first place.
What should you include in an equal opportunities policy?
The contents of any given equal opportunities policy can vary widely between employers, where there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The nature and extent of your policy should be tailored to reflect the size, and specific culture, of your company or organisation.
As such, your policy does not need to be long and complex, where a simple and succinct policy will suffice, provided this still provides clear and legally compliant guidance on discriminatory issues at work, and meets the needs of both your business and your workforce.
Below are some of the key elements that you should consider including in your equal opportunities policy, although it is always best to seek expert advice from an employment law specialist when drafting important workplace policy documents:
- An introductory statement: as a starting point your policy should always reflect the stance taken by your company or organisation on equal opportunities, and how you will respond to any discriminatory behaviour. Here, you should be clear about your commitment to equality and diversity, and to promoting non-discriminatory practices and procedures.
- An explanation of the law: this should include listing the nine protected characteristics so that your staff are fully informed as to who is afforded legal protection under the 2010 Act.
- The different types of discrimination: you should define the various different types of discrimination as provided for under the Act, clearly explaining the difference between key terms such as bullying, harassment and victimisation so that there is no confusion. You may also want to provide illustrative examples of prohibited behaviours.
- The duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees: in the absence of any separate policy on disability, it is advisable to explain the specific duty to disabled job applicants and employees to help them overcome any disadvantage in the workplace.
- The possible disciplinary sanctions for discriminatory behaviour:you should make it clear that all members of staff are expected to respect and act in accordance with the policy, where any discriminatory behaviour could result in action being taken against them.
- The procedure for reporting incidences of discriminatory behaviour: this should include how to lodge a formal complaint using your grievance procedures, or signposting employee’s to any grievance policy. You should also specify who has overall responsibility for such matters, providing details for the relevant points of contact.
What makes an effective equal opportunities policy?
The key to an effective equal opportunities policy is ensuring that this is clearly drafted so that it can be easily understood by all members of staff. You should always use plain English, avoiding technical jargon so that the policy is user-friendly to everyone.
The terms of the policy should be realistic and not too restrictive. This means that you and your management team must be prepared to enforce any rules and procedures put in place for dealing with discriminatory conduct reported under the policy, and these shouldn’t unnecessarily limit the way in which you are able to run your business.
The policy should also be easily accessible to all members of staff, where induction will play a key role in ensuring all new-starters are aware of its existence and where to locate it. Further, by providing training on equal opportunities, you can help to ensure that your policy and procedures are respected, fully understood, and taken seriously.
Reviewing the equal opportunities policy
The importance of regular review and updates to an equal opportunities policy cannot be underestimated. There may be general changes to the law in relation to equality and diversity which should always be reflected in any workplace policy to ensure this is fit for purpose. The environment in which your business operates may also change, or any growth in the size of your workforce may result in the need for a different approach.
A small company or organisation may often only need a basic principle-based policy, whereas a larger more complex business may benefit from several separate additional policies relating to, for example, bullying and harassment, victimisation and disability.
Given the importance of a customised equal opportunities policy, both in providing clear and legally compliant guidance for your staff and management in the context of your business, and in defending any tribunal claims made against you, it is crucial that your policy is regularly reviewed and remains up-to-date.
It also follows that any updated practices and procedures are clearly communicated to your staff, to ensure that everyone is aware of what is required of them at all times.
Equal opportunities policy FAQs
What is the purpose of equal opportunities policy?
All workplaces must comply with equal opportunities legislation. The purpose of an equal opportunities policy is to demonstrate an employer’s approach to equality and diversity in the workplace, setting out guidelines and explaining to staff how discrimination will be dealt with.
What is an example of equal opportunity?
An equal opportunity in the workplace can apply to all different types of scenarios throughout the course of the employment relationship, from recruitment through to redundancy. This could include, for example, not using a last-in-first out policy when selecting for redundancy as this can indirectly discriminate against women who tend to have shorter service than men.
What is the equality policy?
In the context of employment law, the equality policy refers to a written agreement as to how a company or organisation will avoid discriminating against job applicants or existing employees who possess certain protected characteristics - such as age, disability, sex or race - with a view to creating a safe and inclusive environment for everyone.
What is the difference between equality and equal opportunities?
The phrase “equality” refers to being equal in the context of either status, rights or opportunities. In contrast, the phrase “equal opportunities” refers to the right to be treated without discrimination, especially on the grounds of one's sex, disability, race or age.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.