Apple’s visionary leader once professed, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do”.
The benefits to businesses of having workers who are happy and engaged at work, and therefore love what they do, cannot be overstated. A happy, engaged workforce goes hand in hand not only with the production of great work but with customer loyalty, employee retention, business reputation, reduced absenteeism, reduced employment tribunal claims, increased sales and, ultimately, a bigger bottom line. So what can businesses do to “spread the love” and improve their bottom lines? One way is to increase the diversity of and respect for diversity within the workforce. In other words, tackling discrimination, harassment and bullying is key.
Discrimination: the figures and reality
The damage that discrimination can cause to a business’ bottom line can be significant. Of the 422 discrimination cases surveyed last year by the Equal Opportunities Review, the highest award made was £235,825, which was in a case for failure to make reasonable adjustments. The second highest was £136,592, which was awarded in an age discrimination claim. Although six figure awards are the exception rather than the rule, the median discrimination award last year was £7,500, which is not insignificant. Furthermore, claims for discrimination are likely to remain the favourite and sometimes only possible claim for unhappy, disengaged workers to bring. This is so given that the compensation in discrimination claims is uncapped and no minimum period of qualifying service is required to bring them.
Eradicating discrimination by promoting diversity
Businesses should consider the makeup of their workforce and how they are currently promoting diversity. In considering these issues employers should be able to identify areas for improvement and steps to take. Potential steps are noted below.
Equal opportunities policy
Although there is no legal requirement to have an equal opportunities policy it is advisable to have one in place for a number of reasons. Firstly, such a policy can reduce the risk of successful legal action (explained later). Secondly, such a policy may assist in securing new clients and customers, particularly in the public sector where the promotion of equality is a statutory duty. Public bodies have particular requirement to consider equality impact on almost all actions and decisions which they take. An equal opportunities policy should set out minimum standards of behaviour and cover all aspects of employment relations, including recruitment, terms and conditions, promotion, training and development, performance, disciplinary, working arrangements, grievances and disciplinaries.
If the makeup of your workplace is imbalanced the reason for this imbalance may well be your recruitment strategy and decisions. Are you advertising in a way that will be accessible to a large audience? Are you only asking for graduates and therefore potentially deterring those not in their early twenties from applying? Are those carrying out the shortlisting and making the offers basing their decisions on skills and ability alone?
Are your selection processes for redundancy free of discrimination? Practices such as last in first out and using length of service in any selection criteria are likely to be discriminatory on the grounds of age. Similarly, taking absences into account as criterion for selecting people for redundancy may be discriminatory on the grounds of disability.
Work life balance
Consider your stance on flexible working, career breaks, and the provision of childcare facilities and vouchers. Helping workers meet domestic responsibilities without such responsibilities damaging their careers is likely to foster a happy and positive working environment (and reduce costly claims).
Employers can be held vicariously liable for their employees’ acts of discrimination and harassment unless they can establish that they have taken reasonable steps to prevent such acts. An equal opportunities policy that is implemented with proper training should be sufficient to establish the statutory “reasonable steps” defence.
General training should be rolled out to all workers, regardless of seniority. It should focus on the need for an increased awareness of diversity, tackling deep seated stereotypes, bullying and harassment; educate workers on what unfair discrimination is; highlight the personal liabilities of those who participate in discriminatory behaviour; and inform individuals about what to do if they, or one of their colleagues, is being discriminated against, bullied or harassed.
More specific training should be delivered to those in management responsible for recruitment and promotion decisions and the like. Such training is particularly important in light of research conducted by top academics in the United States such as Susan Fiske and Eugene Borgida. Their research indicates that in the first two seconds of, for example, an interview, promotion meeting, disciplinary meeting or redundancy consultation meeting, we ask ourselves the following about a person:
Is this person trustworthy?
How competent is this person?
It is suggested that our instant judgments on the trustworthiness and competence of a person, based on our bias about particular protected characteristics, can lead to errors in decisions as to who to hire, fire and promote. Businesses should, through the provision of appropriate training, avoid making employment decisions on the basis of snap judgments and bias. Furthermore, we all too often hear people making comments about others and / or which offend or upset others and then claim that they were “just a bit of banter”. Effective training should help to eradicate the belief that this type of “banter” is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. Training should occur on a regular basis; businesses should not get complacent and should continually strive to drive up behavioural standards (which should naturally drive up the business’ bottom line).
Grievance and Disciplinary Procedures
Complaints and grievances about discrimination, bullying and harassment must be handled carefully, sensitively, in a confidential manner, and as quickly as possible. Dealing with complaints in this manner should reduce the number of employment claims being brought and, in the long run, save businesses time and money. Procedures for investigating complaints should be linked to disciplinary policies so that justified complaints can be acted on and those carrying out discriminatory acts, bullying or harassment punished.
Employers ought to monitor progress against clearly defined targets.
“The only way to do great work is to love what you do”.
Businesses who want to survive and thrive in this tough economic climate should not ignore this important life lesson of the late Steve Jobs. Those who choose to ignore this lesson, who fail to train and educate their workforce on the importance of diversity and who fail to break down any barriers to a discriminatory-free working environment, will ultimately see their bottom line suffer. Also, they run a considerable business risk of unhappy employees bringing claims.
It is time to spread the love.
Alison Smullen, Solicitor, Employment and Pensions, Hill Dickinson LLP