To help employers identify, tackle and prevent discrimination in the workplace, Acas has recently published three new guides. Although the Acas guides are not strictly legally binding, businesses are expected to be familiar with the Acas guidelines and to implement their recommended best practices. It is not known at this stage what regard will be had by a Tribunal to adherence to these guidelines when considering a claim for discrimination.
The new Acas guides on discrimination are quite detailed. However, the key principles remain unchanged. Employers are expected to understand the equality laws and have mechanisms/practices in place to ensure that employees do not suffer disadvantage on the grounds of protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation.
Having a clear policy setting out the company’s commitment to equality rights is a good starting point for employers. It is also important that the policy is visibly supported by the Executives/Managers and business owners, as they set the example for the staff.
The next step is training staff at all levels with particular attention to managers, so the policies are implemented in everyday work situations. It is important to note that in discrimination cases, aggrieved employees may bring employment tribunal claims not only against their employers but also against individuals, and claims are frequently brought against managers.
Grievance procedures apply to discrimination cases in a similar manner as to other matters. However, in practice, handling complaints relating to discrimination can be challenging even for experienced HR professionals. When discrimination is involved, employees tend to be emotive rather than factual. On the other hand employers may take a defensive approach and fail to investigate the matter with objectivity which is likely to lead to a further complaint from employees.
Irrespective of the initial views at the time when a complaint from an employee is received, all allegations of discrimination should always be taken very seriously and investigated with diligence. As in any grievance, an employee can decide to take it as a formal complaint or to treat it informally. This is at the discretion of the employee and employers should establish at the start which approach the employee would like to take. It is also usually the case that the sooner the matters are tackled by the employers, the less likely they are to escalate.