The Equality Act: Friend or Foe?

Political correctness has gone excessively mad, hasn’t it? The 218 clauses of the Equality Act 2010, detailing rights of staff and customers across nine “protected characteristics” are a bureaucratic nightmare, are they not? A tangled knot of red tape, just waiting to strangle hard-working businesses, and crush the spirit of enterprise at a time when the economy most needs their services – not to mention deliver a lethal blow to the already teetering public sector.

Well, it depends which way up you look at it – from a “top down” point of view that views equality and diversity as a distraction and inconvenience, at best to be tolerated, but kept strictly under control; or from a “bottom up” point of view of a moral economy firmly based upon ethics and principles of connection, sustainability and respect for life.

In our view, the nature of the Act depends upon what you do with it, which, in turn, is determined by how you view it. There is a saying “A stranger is a friend I have not yet met”, we recommend you see the Act as an opportunity: an opportunity to challenge and strengthen your business, both in the area of developing people (leader, managers, staff) and in the all-important field of improving customer experience.

If you view this stranger as an enemy, the Equality Act may mutate into a many-headed monster, waiting to catch you unawares with a string of litigations. This image may ring true to many business leaders who have not yet integrated equality and diversity into their understanding of their core business. To this group, there is little to recommend the Act, and much to reject. The best they can hope to do is to do enough to avoid legal challenges, and to settle “out of court” when they arise.

However, principles of equality and diversity can be viewed not as the enemy of business, but as a reminder that business (as well as Government, civil society, military might and global relations) exists within a much bigger web of life in which every one of us is connected in some way to every other. When the world is seen not in terms of implacably opposed polarities; when apparent opposites are, in fact, seen to be inter-dependent; when each of us understands there are no actions free of cause and effect; then how a business performs on equality and diversity can be understood as a measure of its overall health, confidence and success.

Let’s start from the intrinsic value to businesses, employees and customers of equality and diversity. There is no reason in our view why this should be incompatible with values such as reward for talent or merit, efficiency and business excellence. The Equality Act can be seen as a helpful reminder and a support to good business practice. It can be one means for coming a step closer to a world in which each individual is supported to realise their potential in and through work, and in other areas of their lives; a world in which difference does not have to mean discrimination, and in which equality means a deep awareness of unity, not a prescription of uniformity.

Often businesses view diversity and equality through the “top down” lens of “realism”: bottom lines, return on investment (ROI), cost reduction, outdoing competitors in the image stakes, avoiding litigation. There’s no point in asking fire not to burn or water not to flow: businesses must reduce costs and increase income in order to survive. However, it is important to realise that a focus upon legal compliance, image and cost limitation alone skews business in an anti-social direction, eroding the very foundations upon which a successful business sector is built. It also tends to limit opportunity, thereby obstructing the expression of talent and reward for merit.

That is because every single one of these legitimate business aims – narrowly interpreted – is purely self-serving, and so ultimately undermines the stability and fabric of the group (whether this be a team, organisation, family or society). Taken alone, they do not have a lasting positive impact upon employees, customers or society at large. After the financial crisis which sparked the recent global recession, we would all do well to remember that the pursuit of profit in the absence of considerations of fairness and morality undermines the very system which allows free enterprise and competition to flourish.

Friend or Foe chart

Ironically, in the rush to simplify and polarise the relationship between business and legitimate statutory regulation, many businesses miss a trick. It’s a trick that turns upon the “business case” for diversity & equality. This case is often squeezed between the realities of shareholder value/cost limitation on the one hand and an unrealistic attachment to the “idea moral world” on the other. However, it’s just possible there is an alchemical position between these two poles, which each business can discover for itself, if it is willing.

When we address the question of the “business case” for diversity, we must not restrict our discussion of return on investment to what can immediately be scribbled onto the back of an envelope. If you want to know what the impact of a highly crafted, well-positioned diversity & equality learning and development programme would be to your business, you need to look deeper. In order to explain why, let me ask a few questions:

We aim to support you in culture change that will reduce the negative impact of regressive work practices and attitudes upon your business. And that’s just on the employee side. Let’s look at customer-related questions, such as:

Our aim is to support you in making your business more relevant, accessible and attractive to a wider public. Viewed this way, the cost calculus of taking equality and diversity seriously is much more far-reaching – and the impact of ignoring equality and diversity is more potentially damaging.

In case you think this is just the bee in our bonnet, take a look at one of the world’s most successful businesses; a business which has a branch on every high street, and, as the UK’s number 1 bank, is interested above all in money: HSBC bank. Here’s a quote from their website:

“At HSBC, Diversity is central to our brand… In a world where uniformity dominates, we are building our business in the belief that it is difference thatcreates value. We know that progress and success is reliant on having a mixed and diverse workforce. Diversity is not simply about gender, ethnicity, disability, religion, sexuality or age; it is about respecting individuals and treating everyone, customers and colleagues, with dignity.

“We deliberately recruit from a broad cross-section of society and encourage our people to share their unique backgrounds with others. We do not accept stereotypes and look for the value in everyone. Our robust policies demonstrate the values that we are known and respected for by our employees, customers and stakeholders.”

At Equality Academy we welcome the Equality Act – but not as a panacea for all ills. We see it as one tool for ensuring that the moral economy which inspires forward-thinking, successful businesses, is always on the agenda. However, we recognise it is not laws that create a great businesses: it is vision, values, hard-nosed business sense, and unswerving attitude of continual adaptation and improvement.

We would rather you approached the Act as a metaphorical stranger – just waiting for your approach to become a friend and ally. We recommend you take steps to engage with this stranger, rather than pretending that she is not there, or incurring her anger. This stranger is most certainly not going to go away if you ignore him!

And, as some organisations are currently finding, he can turn fierce! If you would rather engage positively with this stranger, we would be more than happy to act as both introduction agency and relationship counsellor, to help you get along so much better.