Business

What does the Equality Act mean in practice?

Two colleagues walking outside
Image caption The new legislation is designed to help tackle pay inequality

The new Equality Act has come into force, targeting discrimination across a range of issues such as age, disability and pay.

The act has been billed as something of a tidying up exercise, bringing together nine separate pieces of legislation.

However, there are some potentially significant changes that have a very real impact on employers and employees.

Employees

I've heard the act targets pay inequality - as a woman, should I be asking for a pay rise?

"Absolutely, if you have information that a male colleague is being paid more than you for doing equivalent work," says Matthew Tom, employment partner at Candey LLP.

Equal pay questionnaires can still be submitted to the employer to require them to answer specific and detailed questions about this, even though employers will not be required to publish pay information automatically.

What can I do if I'm asked about my health as part of a job interview?

The act prohibits a prospective employer from asking you about your health before offering you a job, with a small number of exceptions.

But, Mr Tom says, even if you have not been disadvantaged by this, you can still report the mere asking of unlawful questions to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to take enforcement action.

You can also raise a disability discrimination complaint if you consider that you have been less favourably treated as a result of such questions.

If I'm pregnant, disabled or from an ethnic minority, will I now find it easier to get a job?

In general terms, the new act will not make a difference given that pregnant, disabled or ethnic minority employees were already protected under the previous legislation.

However, the ban on pre-employment health questionnaires may make it easier for disabled job applicants to receive job offers, according to Richard Yeomans, partner at Addleshaw Goddard LLP.

What should I do if I feel that I am still feeling discriminated against?

There is no real change here - you should still raise grievances under the employer's policies.

Am I now free to disclose my pay to my colleagues, even if my contract says I can't?

You are allowed to discuss your pay with colleagues if this is done to find out specifically whether there is any discrepancy in pay between your wage and theirs, if you have reason to believe you are being discriminated against. Idle gossip can still be disciplined.

Employers

Is the act going to cost me anything?

Yes. According to the government, the cost to businesses of simply understanding the new legislation will be £189.2m. This is basically the cost of the hours spent getting to grips with the rules. Then there will be the cost of amending policies on issues such as harassment and disability. According to the British Chambers of Commerce, the number of claims against employers will also rise.

How can I protect myself against changes made in the act?

The act is more about tidying up legislation rather than making wholesale changes. So the same advice is relevant now as was the case before the act was introduced.

Employers should make sure they have the correct procedures in place, and that they are clearly and effectively communicated to all managers.

This is particularly relevant to procedures on discrimination, grievance, discipline and termination of contracts, says Neil McCarthy, regional underwriting manager at Chubb Specialty Insurance.

These procedures must be followed, as most employee claims are successful not because of the the original grievance, but because procedures were not followed properly.

Finally, make sure you have Employment Practices Liability insurance, which is more widely available and cheaper than it used to be, says Mr McCarthy. This will cover any payouts from claims made against you.

Do I have to change my standard employment contracts?

Yes, you should review the operation of any "pay secrecy" clauses.

"You can continue to include these clauses in your contracts," says Mr Yeomans.

"However, you should not discipline employees who have discussed their pay with colleagues in order to investigate whether your pay practices are discriminatory."

For example, this could include a female employee who discusses pay with a male colleague because she is concerned that her employer pays men more than women for the same work.

Are there any benefits to my company?

The new act means there is more consistency in the different types of discrimination claims, and there is more clarity around what is and is not acceptable behaviour.

In short, there should be less confusion and you should know where you stand more clearly.

Can I expect a raft of pay rise requests?

Possibly, for while the act does not make any fundamental changes to the laws on equality, the publicity around the act - together with restrictions on pay secrecy clauses - may mean that there is an increase in equal pay claims.

However, as Mr Yeomans points out, there was already an upward trend in these types of claims.

Can I now be held liable for harassment of an employee by the third party, such as a customer?

Yes, but only "if you have failed to take reasonably practicable steps to prevent the harassment occurring," explains Mr Tom.

He says that a "three strikes" rule applies, so you can't be liable unless you know the employee has experienced third party harassment on at least two prior occasions, although not necessarily from the same source.

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