How to ensure you comply with discrimination law

Illustration of five men and one woman to illustrate discrimination law

The sharp rise in the number of claims for discrimination underlines the damage that can be done to your business. As an IoD member you have access to legal advice to help you stay the right side of employment law

The number of employment tribunals for discrimination rose sharply last year. Government figures in the year to April 2016 showed an increase from 16,026 to 25,079, a rise of some 56 per cent.

Much of this can be attributed to a dispute brought by thousands of police officers over new pension schemes which, they claimed, discriminated on grounds of age, sex and race.

But the perils of breaching laws against workplace discrimination are clear. Although the average UK payout was just £15,000, the highest award – in a sex discrimination case against a Russian investment bank – was £3m.

The harm done by a case of discrimination being brought against your business can’t simply be measured in financial terms. A tribunal can damage your reputation and affect your ability to retain and recruit the best talent.

It is vital, therefore, that your business and your employees do not act in a discriminatory way – whether by design or accident.

Employment law is both complex and constantly changing. For example, the Equality Act 2010 made “discrimination by association” part of UK legislation, following a landmark decision by the European Court of Justice.

Sarah Coleman, a secretary with legal firm Attridge Law, claimed she was forced into resigning as she was not offered the sort of flexible hours to care for her disabled son as those afforded colleagues with non-disabled children. The court agreed, ruling that she had suffered “discrimination by association”.

If you have a question relating to discrimination, as an IoD member, you can call the legal helpline or book an IAS appointment for an in-depth discussion. Here are some key areas to consider…

Illegal discrimination
It is illegal to treat someone less favourably because of race, religion, sex, sexuality, disability or age, or because someone is, or is not, a member of a trade union. ‘Positive discrimination’ is illegal, but you can use ‘positive action’ during recruitment.

Reasonable adjustments
When dealing with people at a substantial disadvantage because of disability, you must be prepared to make “reasonable adjustments” to enable them to work.

Test of discrimination
The key is to focus on the impact of your actions, not your intentions. The test of discrimination is not what you set out to do, but how it affects those on the receiving end. You may be discriminating without even realising.

Setting the standard
If you own or manage the company, you must be mindful that you are responsible not just for your own actions, but also those of your employees and managers.

Equal treatment
Even when you have a policy and consciously apply it, you still need to take steps to prevent unintentional discrimination. The main danger areas are recruitment, dismissal and redundancy, and choosing people for promotion or training.

Dealing with a complaint
Treat all complaints seriously and make any reasonable investigations before responding. It is in everyone’s interests that complaints should be resolved promptly.

How the IAS could help you

The IAS provides IoD members with free business intelligence and advice to help them run their companies more efficiently and successfully.

The Business Information Service is able to investigate questions on behalf of members and supply them with valuable information ranging from market forecasts and industry trends to trading abroad and employee salaries.

The Directors’ Advisory Service provides confidential, independent advice from specialists on issues ranging from raising finance to board and shareholders’ disputes.

Members can receive prompt and confidential business and personal tax and legal advice from the IoD’s telephone helplines.

Exclusive to IoD members

Our legal helpline provides IoD members with free, unbiased, confidential and prompt business legal advice on a wide range of matters. To find out more about the Information and Advisory Service visit

Email here or call IAS  020 7451 3100

Legal Helpline 0870 241 3478  quote ref 33337 & membership number

Benefits IoD members are entitled to 25 enquiries a year to the Business Information Service, 4 sessions with an IoD adviser, 25 calls to both the legal helpline and the tax helpline

More on discrimination

FTSE 100 Companies’ LGBT diversity failure

Are employers ignoring people with disabilities?

Gender pay reporting – is your business ready? 

About author

Ryan Herman

Ryan Herman

Alongside his work for Director, Ryan has written for SportBusiness International, VICE Sports, Populous, Audi and Gallop Magazine and was previously editor of Sky Sports Magazine.

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