The lowdown on..Equality & Diversity


cognition logoUp and down the country HR people and training companies spend hours coming up with ingenious new ways of trying to re-brand something that perhaps should just be named for what it is: Equality and Diversity. Andy Marshall, Director of Cognition Associates, explains:
“We understand that people can get bored of hearing those words or may think it’s a waste of resources, so we thought it was time to consider what those two untouchable words actually mean, where the concepts come from and why it is important for today’s SMEs to take them seriously.
‘Equality’ is based on the principles of human rights, the idea that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights); a grand statement indeed and one that is interpreted in many different ways around the world. It is the principle that underpins the Equality Act (EA) here in the UK: the idea that people can have characteristics that make them more liable to have their rights denied and that they should be protected from this by law. These are the EA’s ‘Protected Characteristics’: Age, Disability, Sex, Marriage and Civil Partnership, Pregnancy and Maternity, Race, Religion and Belief (Non- Belief), Sexual Orientation, Gender Reassignment.

Myth Buster No.1
“The EA is all about protecting minority groups! What about the rights of the majority?”
This is not just some list of ‘minority types’. Have another look – all of us are on this list at least 6 times. We all, for example, have a race, age and sex, on the basis of which we could be discriminated against. This not just some random list of issues that someone has plucked out of the “PC hat” – these are the issues that most often end up in court in discrimination cases.

So, the law protects people from being treated less favourably because of these characteristics. Take a disabled person who might be told that they cannot apply for a job because they are disabled – ILLEGAL! (Direct Discrimination) Or rather, potentially illegal – these things are, of course, decided in courts. Or maybe it’s not quite so blatant – there is some requirement for the job that has nothing (apparently) to do with being disabled but which, quite unintentionally, hampers a disabled applicant – ILLEGAL! (Indirect Discrimination) Do you remember when job applications routinely said ‘full driving license required’? You don’t see it much these days because it could constitute indirect discrimination. If the job requirement is actually the ability to travel (between offices, for example) then disabled people, who are less likely to have a driving license, could be unfairly excluded. The government runs a scheme called Access to Work that could support a disabled person who doesn’t drive in paying for whatever kind of transport they might need to do the job. Quite without intending to, employers can end up excluding talented people from their recruitment or staff development processes.

“But what …” I hear you think to yourself “… what if the job advert is for a lorry driver? It would be ridiculous to say…” Let me just stop you there! You’re right. In that case the need to have a driving license would be a ‘genuine occupational requirement’. If a company or organisation can reasonably justify discriminating against someone on the grounds of the requirements of the job, then the EA enforcers are unlikely to come a knockin’.

Myth Buster No.2
“The EA gives all the power to employees! What about the rights of the business?”
The EA genuinely seeks to balance the rights and interests of individuals, businesses and society as a whole. For example, the EA contains the duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled people. This may mean adapting the workplace / working practices or providing aids to enable disabled people to continue (or start) working for them. But the law also recognizes the needs of the company with that word ‘reasonable’. A court is not going to force a small company into bankruptcy in order to install an expensive new lift but it would expect that all reasonable efforts were made to overcome access barriers.

‘Diversity’ is about enabling you to build the most efficient and effective business possible by getting the best out of your staff.

Myth Buster No.3
“Diversity is a buzz word dreamed up by some PC tree-huggers to get us all to be ‘nicer’ to each other.”
The idea of embracing diversity in organisations was sparked by the crisis of the US economy in the 1980s when it final dawned on the leaders of industry that things had changed. The demographic of the workforce and consumers had shifted towards women, ethnic minorities and older people. They could no longer stuff their boardrooms with white, middle aged, middle class men. If they wanted to compete, they had to actively recruit a spectrum of people.

There is a growing body of hard evidence to prove that this premise is true. Businesses often make greater profit if their highest decision making bodies contain a diverse range of genders, ethnicities and ages.

But the principle of diversity goes way beyond including different categories like gender, age, race, sexual orientation, etc. It is founded on the idea that each human being is unique with their own history, ways of thinking and seeing the world, and their own physical and mental strengths & weaknesses. If the organisation they work for recognizes and uses their strengths, while acknowledging and, if possible, seeking to develop their weaknesses, then both the individual and the organisation will flourish.

It is a simple yet revolutionary idea: “If we adapt our organisation to fit our people rather than squeezing our people into the organisation, they will be more productive!”

An obvious outcome of this paradigm shift was flexible working. Why does everybody need to be in the workplace between 9 and 5? Let workers strike a better work-life balance, be able to pick up the kids, etc, and they’ll be happier in work and do a better job! Of course, it’s not always so simple but there are many companies who have reaped the business benefits from this approach.

Above all, it’s about communication, building a culture where people can genuinely share ideas, discuss problems and feel valued. If you’ve got this spirit in your business then you will have the strength of your people behind you; you will be able to learn from them and they will be more willing to learn from you.

Cognition offers full support service for all Equality and Diversity needs, from developing policies and training staff to monitoring implementation and impact.

Contact Cognition on 02920318095 or or visit