Earlier this month, the government made the commencement order which brought 90 per cent of the Equality Act 2010 into force.
It included several new pieces of legislation designed to strengthen equality laws for the benefit of job seekers and employees.
It also sought to simplify current rules on equality by bringing existing pieces of legislation together.
In total, nine sets of regulations are included un the Equality Act 2010, including the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
The government claimed the new legislation would ease the burden on employers, but not everyone agrees.
Indeed, the British Chambers of Commerce warned that the act would have a one-off cost to businesses of £189.2 million.
But what does it mean for employers in practice and what sort of changes will they have to make in order to comply with employment law?
The first of the provisions included in the Equality Act 2010 is a change to the basic framework of protection against direct discrimination.
This type of discrimination will now be defined as less favourable treatment because of a protected characteristic, such as disability, sex, race or religious beliefs.
Protection will also now be included for those who are discriminated against because they are perceived to have, or as associated with someone who has, a protected characteristic.
In terms of indirect discrimination, protection will be extended in this area to cover all protected characteristics, including disability and gender reassignment.
For the latter of these two examples, the definition of gender reassignment will be changed by removing the requirement for medical supervision.
As a result of these changes, employers may have to scrutinise their recruitment policies and keep a close eye on what goes on inside their workplace with regards to promotions, training and other career opportunities.
Harassment and victimisation laws have also been beefed up in the new act and although the basic definitions are largely unchanged, there is now no reason for unwanted conduct to be related to protected characteristics to warrant liability.
Furthermore, employers can be held responsible for harassment or victimisation by a third party, such as another employee or a customer, if they knew about the conduct but did nothing to stop it.
One of the most highly-publicised measures contained in the Equality Act 2010 was the move to make pay secrecy clauses unenforceable.
Secrecy clauses in employment contracts are sometimes used to prevent employees from discussing pay and bonuses with one another.
Now, individuals who do talk about their salaries will be protected from victimisation if action is taken against them by their employer.
One of the aims of this particular piece of legislation is to end salary inequality between men and women doing similar jobs.
Another of the act’s major headline laws is a measure to prevent employers from asking questions about disability and health before offering positions to job applicants.
The aim of this rule is to put a stop to discrimination against disabled people during the recruitment process.
New powers for employment tribunals have also been brought in which will enable them to make recommendations that benefit the whole workforce.
At present, they can only award financial compensation to an individual who brings a claim of discrimination, harassment or unequal pay.
Now they will be able to suggest, for example, that a company reviews its recruitment policies, takes another look at its pay structures or provides additional staff training, for example.
The Equality Act will affect employers in England, Wales and Scotland, and its measures could have a bigger impact on smaller firms who may not have in place the policies that large organisations often have to prevent discrimination.
On October 1st the majority of the act was enforced, but further provisions are due to be introduced at a later date, so companies should keep a close watch on new announcements to make sure they do not fall foul of the law.
Posted by Christopher Evans
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