Guidance for employers
The equality laws in Northern Ireland provide the legislative framework that enables these aims to be achieved. By prohibiting unlawful discrimination and harassment (including sexual harassment) against people when they are working or seeking employment, the equality laws drive the development of inclusive, welcoming and harmonious working environments.
Such discrimination and harassment are normally unlawful where they are based on certain specific grounds; for instance, where they are done because a person possesses certain characteristics like their sex (i.e. they are a man, or a woman), or because they are undergoing or have undergone gender reassignment, or because of their racial group, or their sexual orientation, or that they are disabled.
Everyone enjoys these protections and, if they are denied them, may have legal remedies, such as a right to claim compensation from an employment tribunal.
In addition, one of the equality laws, the Fair Employment & Treatment (NI) Order 1998
, seeks to protect the rights of all people to hold and, within limits, express or demonstrate certain beliefs or opinions. In relation to employment, the protected grounds are religious belief, philosophical belief and political opinion. Thus, an employer may not normally refuse to employ a person, or may not dismiss a person, merely because that person holds, or is perceived to hold, a particular religious or philosophical belief or political opinion, even if some other people may find those beliefs or opinions to be offensive. Harassment on those grounds is also unlawful.
However, that does not mean that a person who holds a particular set of protected beliefs or opinions has a right to express, or demonstrate their support for those beliefs or opinions in ways that would discriminate against or harass other persons on any of the protected grounds in situations where the law prohibits such discrimination and harassment, such as in workplaces.
Equal opportunities policies and codes of conduct
It is for that reason that employers are strongly encouraged to set policies about how their employees may behave towards each other in the course of their employment; for example, that set rules that require employees to treat each other with dignity and mutual respect and not to discriminate against or harass others on the protected grounds.
Such policies may deal with how employees may speak to each other and may prohibit the use of offensive racist, sexist, sectarian or homophobic words and phrases, and/or that may deal with the display of flags and emblems in shared spaces, or with dress codes that may impose restrictions on what clothing or emblems (e.g. football shirts, tattoos or other logos) employees may wear or display in such spaces.
Where an employer may face a discrimination or harassment complaint and where they may try to defend the action on the ground that they are a sincere “equal opportunities employer
”, an employment tribunal is more likely to be persuaded that this is so where the employer has, at the very least, taken the reasonably practicable step of having such policies.
Thus, within certain limits, it is reasonable and lawful for employers to do this in the interests of creating shared spaces that are inclusive, harmonious and welcoming to all and where no one is unfairly excluded or subjected to unlawful discrimination or harassment. Such rules must be fair, proportionate, applied consistently to all and non-discriminatory.
Beyond that, however, it is not enough merely to have such policies. They are empty words unless they are actually implemented and enforced. They must be communicated regularly to all staff through training or otherwise so that each person understands what is expected of them. Furthermore, complaints must be handled promptly and seriously and, where appropriate, disciplinary action must be taken against those who violate the standards.
Guidance on good practice
Best practice in developing good and harmonious working environments uses legislation as the foundation for, not the ceiling of, such practice. It has modelled new ways of being together and allowed people to see the benefits that can accrue from sharing.
This has enabled employers in Northern Ireland to deal with sensitive industrial relations matters, quite successfully, for many, many years, quite often from the perspective of the historical conflict between the two main religious/political communities here.
In doing that, employers have been assisted by guidance issued by the Equality Commission, such as our Guide on Promoting a Good and Harmonious Working Environment (pdf), our Guide on Harassment & Bullying at Work: Promoting an Inclusive Workplace (pdf) and our model employment policies.
We also know that what may be considered as good and harmonious may change over time to reflect societal changes, for example, when the initial good and harmonious guidance was drawn up, social media was not a part of our lives and the proportion of migrant workers and minority ethnic people in our community was much less than it is now.
Nevertheless, the fundamental principles for promoting and sustaining a good and harmonious working environment, as outlined in our guidance, still apply to each equality area where similar legal duties exist.
We know it’s complicated and it’s hard continuous work. Promoting and sustaining an inclusive workplace culture requires ongoing focus – it is never ‘done’. Our Advice and Compliance team are there to help, inform and advise; their advice is free, expert and confidential. Telephone 028 90 500 600 or email firstname.lastname@example.org