Returning to work and maintaining equality in the workplace

Author: Karen Holden, A City Law Firm

Whilst there is a global pandemic which is affecting millions of businesses across the globe, many companies are eager to get back to business as usual. We have been advising businesses how to return to work safely and set up best practice. However, it is equally important to remember the core values and principles of the business, such as how it treats, engages and motivates its employees and customers, particularly promoting equality and diversity in the workplace.

Image of people coming together to represent equality and diversity in the workplace

Employees are going to have mixed reactions, when employers discuss their return to work plans, with them. There will be factors around childcare, transportation, health concerns and some people’s desire to remain working at home for productivity and flexibility. How an employer handles this will very much depend on its needs and requirements, but the law and government guidance should also be considered carefully. The key for employers is to have a clear and documented plan, amended transparent policies and to engage in conversations with its team to get everyone on board, where possible. Likewise, employees should be treated fairly, any amended policies must not discriminate and should actively promote equality.

Employee’s position

It is not unexpected that work pressures and strains will have increased significantly in recent months and that some employees will have personal pressures on top of this. Employers would do well to remind themselves that they should respect their staff for their individual age, sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, and more when discussing return to work plans.

The Equality Act 2010 provides such protection against any discriminatory behaviour for protected people; however, employers should look to not only prevent any inequality but actively promote equality in the workforce and outside its operations generally.

Whether employees have been working at home or are returning from furlough, engaging them and offering them a forum to voice concerns, ask questions and discuss plans will help the transition go so much smoother. This will maintain productivity, avoid grievances and hopefully keep everyone focused on building the business.

Vulnerable staff

People at risk over 70’s and/or have a disability or underlining conditions.

If an employee has a disability under the Equality Act, they are protected from unfair treatment. If an employee has a medical letter placing them in an “at risk” group, due to age, health or a disability, they should remain on the Furlough scheme –  to shield from the Covid19 pandemic – or they should be allowed to work at home remotely for their safety. If the employee wishes to return to work, after a risk assessment and consideration of reasonable adjustments, this can be facilitated between employer and employee.

An employer must follow the government guidance about staff returning to work and have a clear risk assessment and plan. If staff do not feel safe and it is not considered safe and secure any member of staff can raise a grievance under health and safety law, but offering support and due care will usually help the employer encourage loyal and productive staff.

If a disabled member of staff is at risk of being sacked for staying at home, because they are too anxious to return, for example, they could raise a grievance and if fired they can look to claim unfair dismissal or disability discrimination. They are more likely to suffer complications if they contract Covid19, which is a factor to also be considered seriously by employers. They have a right under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 for their health to be protected by their employer who must prevent or reduce risks to an employees’ health and safety while at work. However, rather than considering this negative position discussions around reasonable adjustments and support is much more likely to generate a productive environment.

Parents unable to return to full time days and hours due to childcare.

A policy can be given to all staff indiscriminately, but those that physically cannot attend the office or work standard hours, due to a fundamental issue, will be perceived to of been treated less fairly than those that can. As such employers need to be careful about gender or age discrimination. However, a good employer will first action a manager to discuss the possibility of continuing to work at home, flexible working or address working hours, where this is feasible. This enables productivity and engages staff which is hopefully beneficial to all parties. Employers should give due consideration to any flexible working requests, given the circumstances, and weigh up the business needs to the employee’s imminent needs. The employer can also as from July 2020 bring furloughed staff back to work part-time whilst still receiving government assistance which should help ease this issue in the short-term.

Mental Health

Mental health awareness is also something employers will need to consider when returning back to work. Many will have been affected by the lockdown, maybe self-isolation, bereavement, concern over losing their skills or just nervous about returning, a return to work interview might be suggested. This could address their concerns and maybe discuss training or flexible working that could be provided by the employer.

The Future

Protecting equality internally can be done by offering regular training to employees, especially management, to ensure that all are aware of the need to treat colleagues equally and to ensure that people are not at a disadvantage or are treated differently for any reason.

Clear policies communicated down from management, as well as transparent implementation and action, are essential in promoting equality. Promoting equality can also extend to outside operations, for example actively encouraging and participating in LGBTQ events, gender or racial equality talk, offering internal panels focused on equality and support groups, or raising money for charities that aim to remedy inequality. All these actions actively promote the business as an equal opportunities and diverse place to work and do business and set an example to its employees.

Employees are at the heart of a business and if they feel that they are looked after they will likely look after the business itself. With the World in a crisis at the moment and the World economy taking a large hit, the businesses that promote real values and continue to look after their staff are likely to be resilient enough to ride out this storm. If, however, a business compromises these values by treating employees unfavourably and forces them back to work too soon, or fails to recognise and address their needs, they may find themselves without staff to help them through this period and the coming months which are going to be equally tough. 

Likewise treating customers and clients with respect during this period and after is key to preserving the relationship and business. As such training on religion, race, disability, sexual orientation, and how minority groups may have been impacted, or continue to be impacted by the pandemic, would put company managers in a better position to help and avoid claims. Communication is key, if you are loyal, committed to promoting equality to staff and clients alike, you should reap the awards.

A City Law Firm has always promoted and fought for equality in the law and workplace. Our people set us apart, even more so now, we listen to what our staff concerns might be and react accordingly. We have amended our polices to handle the changes, management have communicated these and are encouraged to act as examples to lead these changes, and an open forum to discuss the implications and people’s concerns has been made available. Employees that we have engaged with over the years, whether current or moved on, have always felt open to discuss themselves, their ideas and career aspirations. As a business we have openness on diversity and equality issues, and for that reason we will always have equality in the workplace. We are here to assist any business with its approach, drafting staff handbooks and policies, handle any grievances it may have, and advise on how to engage its staff and remain positive for the future.

City Business Library is a small business support service, giving you access you business data, events and start-up advice. For more information about our services please visit our website.

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