Equal opportunities and family friendly practices are more likely to be adopted by organisations that consult or negotiate with unions, new research has discovered.

The researchers argue that for the Conservatives’ 2010 election manifesto pledge to make Britain ‘the most family friendly country in Europe’ to be finally met, the government should encourage employers to engage in genuine joint decision-making over equality policy via meaningful consultation or negotiation with unions.

The analysis of a survey of 2,295 workplaces in the UK by Kim Hoque, of Warwick Business School, and Nicolas Bacon, of Cass Business School, found that a range of equal opportunity practices covering gender, age, race and disability, and also a range of family friendly practices, were more prevalent at workplaces that gave unions a voice in determining equality policy.

Professor Hoque said: “The Conservatives made a pledge to improve family friendly practices at work and our research has shown unions can help achieve this.

“This research shows that if the government encouraged employers to engage with unions when determining equality policy it would bring major benefits. Working together, unions and employers can find ways to improve equality and family friendly practices.”

Just 13.3 per cent of the workplaces surveyed consulted or negotiated with unions when deciding equal opportunity issues. But the study found that practices to tackle gender, race, disability and age inequalities were more widespread at those organisations.

In a paper entitled Unions, joint regulation and workplace equality policy and practice in Britain, published in Work, Employment and Society, it was revealed that 35 per cent of workplaces in which consultation with unions over equality occurred six of the 12 equal opportunity and family friendly measures surveyed were adopted.

That figure jumped to 39 per cent when negotiation rather than just consulting with unions over equality occurred, but it plummeted to two per cent at workplaces without a union. At workplaces that had a union but did not consult them over equal opportunities, it was 14 per cent.

Those organisations that consulted or negotiated with unions had better monitoring of recruitment and promotion to identify any indirect discrimination and were more likely to have procedures in place to encourage job applications from disadvantaged groups such as ethnic minorities, disabled people and women returning to work.

The review of pay rates was also more common at organisations where companies consulted or negotiated with unions, while family-friendly practices such as job-sharing, the availability of flexi-time, workplace nurseries and help with the cost of childcare, leave for carers of older adults and maternity leave at the full rate of pay were also more widely adopted.

“This study found that when unions are consulted or involved in negotiations at a company the wider the range of equal opportunity procedures and family friendly practices are put in place,” said Professor Hoque.

“The onus is not just on employers to engage with unions, however, but also for unions to ensure that they seek to promote equality in their dealings with employers.

“It is essential that unions seek to ensure equality is included on the bargaining agenda with companies, and where consultation over equality does not occur, this is something they should press for. Should they do so, this may enable them to have a significant influence on the equality practices employers subsequently adopt.”

For a copy of Unions, joint regulation and workplace equality policy and practice in Britain email