1. Introduction to Equal Opportunities

What is Equal Opportunities?

We’ve all heard the words ‘equal opportunities’ being used, but what does it really mean to ensure that all employees are treated equally (regardless of their sex, marital status, nationality, colour, race, age, national origin, religion, belief, sexual orientation or disability) and have the same access to promotion and progression within an organisation?

Most commonly, the term ‘equal opportunity’ is a term used within human resources to describe the actions and measures taken to ensure fairness in employment and recruitment. In simple terms, equal opportunity is about addressing the ‘balance’ and representation of a community within a workforce – but what does it mean in action?

Equal opportunity means:

All people are treated as individuals without judgements being made of them based on stereotypes.
  • Understanding, appreciating and valuing all employees’ different sets of skills and abilities, and utilising their differences for the best personal and organisational results.
  • Offering fair, courteous and equal opportunities to all individuals.
  • Fully embracing the principle that people will be treated with fairness.
  • That a working environment is created and fostered where people of all backgrounds and experience feel valued and appreciated.
Equal Opportunities Policies

Most organisations have an equal opportunities policy (see example policy) and it is one of the key policies to have in place. The policy should describe the steps the Company will take to abide by equality legislation and promote equality in the workplace. However, it is not enough just to have a policy in place!

You should promote and publicise your equal opportunities policy as widely as possible to all employees. Equal opportunities training can be an important part of showing that you are preventing discrimination, harassment and victimisation in your Company. This will also help you demonstrate that you have taken all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination – something an Employment Tribunal will look for if an employee ever brings a claim against the Company for discrimination.

A policy is the first step in having a 'statutory defence' to any claim for discrimination i.e. that the Company is not responsible for the discriminative behaviour of their employees as employees were clearly told of the company's policy and were therefore acting outside of this policy.  However, the employer will probably have to go further than this and demonstrate the policy has been clearly communicated and upheld by management; and that some training has been provided.

Step by Step Equal Opportunities:
  • Ensure you have a policy that is supported by Directors/owners and senior managers.
  • Ensure the policy is clearly communicated to all employees (and that they are reminded of it at regular intervals e.g. annually).
  • Ensure managers police the policy and take appropriate action if they witness any conduct in breach of the policy (this includes banter!)
  • Consider having a confidential email or process where employees can raise concerns and publicise this.
  • Provide training for employees. Start with induction training and talk employees through your policy and make it clear what behaviour and conduct is and is not acceptable.
  • Provide reminder training to all employees.