With there being so many different forms of discrimination (e.g. disability, age, sex, religion, sexual orientation) covered by the Equality Act 2010, supplemented by codes of practice and statutory guidance, understanding discrimination can be extremely challenging for employers.
Discrimination doesn’t have to be overt (it usually isn’t) and it comes in many guises. Sometimes the treatment complained of is quite subtle and aggrieved employees find unfair treatment difficult to articulate. Mindful that employers are vicariously liable for the discriminatory acts of their employees, there are limits as to how far an organisation can go in ensuring its workforce embraces a positive working environment by treating their colleagues with dignity and respect.
Discrimination covers every aspect of an employment relationship: recruitment, employee benefits, promotion and termination. Importantly however, the legislation extends beyond employees and includes job applicants, agency and contract workers among others.
Claimants can bring proceedings against both their employer and the offender – a colleague, or a manager for example.
Defences to claims
In Employment Tribunal proceedings an employer can avoid liability if it can demonstrate that it took all reasonable steps to prevent the discriminator (usually an employee) from committing the discriminatory act in question. In order to do so, an employer needs to have comprehensive equal opportunities and anti-bullying policies in place. Furthermore, having evidence of managers who have been trained in dealing with allegations, making employees aware of any policies, highlighting in clear terms the consequences for discriminatory behaviour, and having a proven track record of dealing with historical complaints, are more likely to tip the balance in helping employers avoid liability altogether.