"Keep up or get left behind" warns EHRC Chair, Trevor Phillips

"Keep up or get left behind" warns EHRC Chair, Trevor Phillips

The forthcoming Equality Bill includes important provisions on positive action which should help employers recruit a more representative range of people to their staff, delegates were told at a conference recently organised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission

The Equality Bill  is set to change the law on positive action and give employers the voluntary ability to choose between two equally qualified candidates if they need to recruit people who are currently under-represented in their organisation. 

For example, a primary school head teacher choosing between equally capable male and female applicants to a teaching post would be able to select the male candidate on the basis that overwhelming numbers of primary school teachers are female. 

This “tipping factor” consideration could only lawfully be made by employers after the relevant candidates have been through a proper selection process and judged to be equal according to an objective and rigorous assessment of their abilities, skills, experience and personal circumstances. Each candidate’s skills, qualifications and aptitude would therefore continue to be the most important factors in deciding who to employ.

Around 100 private and public sector employers heard from speakers including the Commission’s chair Trevor Phillips and the government’s solicitor general, Vera Baird QC MP about what proposals for ‘positive action’ would mean for their businesses, with the aim of tackling some of the myths that surround positive action and its confusion with positive discrimination.

Positive action is not the same as positive discrimination, which will remain unlawful. Positive discrimination means that applicants from some groups receive preferential treatment in the recruitment process. So, for example deselecting candidates before interview or choosing between unequally qualified candidates on the basis of race, gender, age religion or belief or sexual orientation will remain illegal. The only exception, as enshrined in the current legislation which will remain unchanged, is if the job needs to be done by people of a specific race, gender, age, religion or sexual orientation. This is known in law as an “Occupational Requirement”.

Also speaking at the event were Sally Boyle, head of human capital management EMEA, Goldman Sachs and Becky Mason, senior people & policy manager, BT gave short presentations about how their firms are using positive action. 

The delegates heard that a more diverse range of employees may give businesses a greater insight into new markets – for instance it may help them to identify the needs or preferences of certain sectors and win more customers from that sector. A more diverse workforce may also attract a wider range of customers.  For instance, taxi companies that employ women drivers may appeal more to women customers travelling on their own. 

Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission said:

“As the country grows ever more diverse in the years to come, employers have a simple choice: keep up or get left behind.  For private firms, the insight brought by staff of different backgrounds can unlock new markets. In the public sector, a workforce that looks like the people it serves can meet the needs and win the confidence of every part of the community.

“In this context, the drive for greater diversity is far from being a distraction from the job of recovering from recession.  It is essential to getting the economy firing on all cylinders again.”