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Miles Cooper presents a guide to dealing with discrimination in the 21st century workplace...
Discrimination has been in the news a lot recently with stories involving from veils and crucifixes making national headlines. But, in official terms, just what is discrimination?
Discrimination happens when someone is treated worse ('less favourably' in legal terms) than another person in the same situation. Discrimination may happen at work: for example, a black person might be refused a job without good reason, or be racially harassed by other employees. A woman might have a problem about equal pay, or the way she is treated if she is pregnant or has a child to care You may suffer discrimination for a number of reasons. It is often because of your race; of your sex; of your religion or belief; you have a disability; you are elderly; or you are gay or lesbian.
The protection you have in law depends on why you were discriminated against. In the case of sex discrimination, for example, there are specific laws setting out when it is unlawful for someone to discriminate against you. The law gives you the right to go to an employment tribunal or to court if you have been treated unfairly.
You may get compensation for loss of earnings or if your feelings have been hurt, depending on the kind of discrimination you've suffered. Also, taking someone to court or to a tribunal may change the way they behaves towards other people in future. In the meantime there are things you may be able to do, to stop the discrimination happening.
Sometimes, a person may be discriminated against for more than one reason. If you think you are in this position, you may need to get advice about the best course of action. You can get advice from a trade union (if you belong to one); a law centre; a Citizens Advice Bureau; or a solicitor.
Types Of Discrimination
The law on equality talks about two types of discrimination:
- Direct discrimination, which is when you are treated less favourably simply because, for example, you are black, or you are a woman
- Indirect discrimination, which can happen where there are rules or conditions which apply to everyone but affect one group of people more than others, without a good reason. For example, a company rule that says that employees must do night shifts could exclude women who have children to care for.
In certain cases discrimination is allowed. For example, the law allows a women's refuge to insist that its counsellors are women.
If you want to complain about being discriminated against (or if you are helping a colleague who is complaining), you may fear that your employer may treat you less favourably for this reason. If they do, this is called victimisation, and it is unlawful (illegal) in the same way discrimination is.
Two laws aim to make sure that men and women are treated equally:
- The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (as amended 1986) makes it unlawful to discriminate against men or against women in employment, education, housing or providing goods and services, and also in advertisements for these things. It’s also against the law to discriminate against someone because they are married, but only in work-related matters
- The Equal Pay Act 1970 (as amended 1984) says that women must be paid the same as men when they are doing the same (or broadly similar) work, work rated as equivalent under a job evaluation scheme or work of equal value. European law also says that women and men should receive equal pay for equal work. For more about this, see ‘Equal pay’
Applying For A Job
The Sex Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for an employer, when filling a job vacancy, to discriminate because of your sex or because you're married. The law covers three areas:
- When deciding who should be offered the job. This includes the job description, the ‘person specification’ (the description of the skills, experience and qualifications needed to do the job), the application form, the short-listing process, interviewing and final selection
- The terms and conditions of the job, such as pay, holidays or working conditions
- Deliberately not considering your application
The law covers contract and part-time workers as well as fulltime or permanent staff.
An example of direct sex discrimination would be refusing to consider you for a job just because you are a woman, or because you are a man (for example – refusing to consider a man for a job as a secretary). An example of indirect sex discrimination would be saying, without good reason, that everyone applying for a job must have been in the armed forces. Because fewer women than men have been in the armed forces, a woman would be less likely to get the job.
Treating a married person less favourably than a single person of the same sex is also unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act. It would be ‘direct marriage discrimination’ if an employer refused to employ a married woman just because they thought she would be more likely than a single woman to leave to have a baby. ‘Indirect marriage discrimination’ could happen if, for example, an employer said that everyone applying for a job must move to a new location, unless the employer could show that moving was essential to the job.
When An Employer Is Allowed To Discriminate
In some cases employers are allowed to offer a job only to men, or only to women. This is called a ‘genuine occupational qualification’ (GOQ). Examples where an employer may do this are:
- for privacy and decency: for example, employing a male care assistant because he has to help men dress or use the toilet;
- for personal welfare services: for example, employing women counsellors for a women’s welfare charity;
- where the employee has to live on work premises and there aren’t separate sleeping areas for men and women;
- for some jobs in single-sex institutions, such as hospitals and prisons;
- for some jobs in private homes, such as a live-in carer;
However, an employer may not use a need for strength or stamina in a job as a reason for not looking at applications from women, for example.