On 1 October 2010, the single biggest piece of UK discrimination legislation will come into effect, making it vital for employers to understand the implications and to take action now. Current legislation has often been criticised for its inconsistency and lack of clarity - leaving employers feeling confused and frustrated – but whilst the new law will provide a simplified set of rules and clearer cut language, it has also caused concern.
According to The Equality Act Impact Assessment, the implementation of the Act will cost businesses between £240.9m and £282.6m in the first year. With a number of alterations to - and reinterpretations of - discrimination law, employers will need to review policies and contracts, re-evaluate application forms and recruitment processes, and educate employees on key changes to the legislation. For many employers, implementing clear and appropriate measures to reduce the risk of claims being made against them, will be a long and laborious process. It will become necessary for employers to assess whether their employees are exposed to third party harassment, appraise the way in which jobs are advertised and worded, and consider the practical steps that they must take in order to achieve compliancy.
The changes to discrimination legalisation will come into effect at different times, giving employers ample opportunity to prepare for the amended clauses. However, you should begin to prepare for the following key alterations:
Positive action: the Act allows employers to take positive action if they think employees or job applicants suffer a disadvantage connected to a protected characteristic, or if their participation in an activity is disproportionately low.
Pre-employment health-related checks: the Act limits the circumstances under which an employer can ask health-related questions, prior to offering an individual a job. Up to this point, you may only ask health-related questions to help you to decide whether you need to make any reasonable adjustments to the selection process, or whether an applicant can carry out a function that is intrinsic to the job.
Extension of employment tribunal powers: under previous equality and discrimination law, an employment tribunal could recommend that an employer must eliminate or reduce the effect on the claimant of any discrimination. Under the new regulations, a tribunal can also recommend the same for other employees.
Equal pay – direct discrimination: in most circumstances, a challenge to pay inequality and other contractual terms and conditions still has to be made by comparison with a real person of the opposite sex in the same employment. Employees can now claim direct pay discrimination.
Pay secrecy: it’s unlawful to prevent or restrict employees from discussing pay if their intention is to establish whether differences exist due to protected characteristics; making pay secrecy clauses unenforceable.
The difficulties that employers may encounter in both understanding and implementing the Act should however be weighed against the positive progress that we are making as a country in combating inequality. In making Britain a far more tolerant, equal and forward-thinking arena in which to work, the scope to attract a diversity of world-class talent to the doors of UK businesses will be greater than ever.
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