Last reviewed 16 December 2015

What is the right mix? And what is that about a claim? Let’s look at the last question first. An inequality claim would be made by an employee who asserts that you, the employer, did something that was in breach of the Equality Act, an important piece of legislation that protects individuals or groups of people who may be discriminated against or treated worse than others in similar circumstances, says Bob Patchett.

You would have a valid claim if, for example, you were denied promotion because you were a woman, or Asian, or elderly. Everyone at work must be afforded equal opportunity to apply for jobs, receive training, gain promotion, and so on. Every employer must be fully aware of the requirements of this Act and must make it work in all parts of the organisation. This, in turn, means that clear policies and practice protocols need to be set out and published, and that all employees, especially managers, are trained to comply with them in such a way that equal opportunity becomes a normal way of life.

However, mistakes do happen. A manager may, unintentionally, make an unfortunate remark that causes offence, in which case you need to rush into damage limitation mode and hope that an apology, a reprimand and some training will resolve the issue. But, if this fails, you will probably find yourself in an employment tribunal (ET) having to defend yourself against a breach of the Equality Act. If, as seems likely, you lose, the ET will look at how seriously you take the idea of being an equal opportunities employer before it assesses the compensation you will have to pay. On the other hand, an employee may feel over-sensitive about the way he or she has been treated and lodge a claim, and again the ET may look at how seriously you enforce the Act. It will ask to see your policies and procedures governing matters such as recruitment, training and redundancy and — coming now to our original first question — whether you do, in reality, offer equal opportunities to everyone in the organisation and the community.

The right mix is where, in a medium or large-size organisation, your employee population reflects the make-up of your labour market in terms of, for example, gender, ethnicity, age, religion or disability. The Equality Act sets out all the protected groups. If you truly recruit, for example, with absolutely no prejudice, and addressing all corners of the market, then the larger the organisation, the closer the match should be. But, even in a small company of 20 people, if all 3 managers are men, are you sure you are giving women a chance to become managers? This may sound frightening but, if you genuinely wish to employ and promote people on merit alone, it is not a difficult issue. There are no fixed quotas and you are not required to submit statistics (except in Northern Ireland where returns have to be made, showing the religious make-up of certain workforces).

Your first task, therefore, is to gain a rough idea of the make-up of the pools from which you recruit, which may be your town, your region or the nation. Some of the categories we need to consider will be pretty well the same, however great the area. For example, most will contain roughly an equal number of men and women, and will show a fairly consistent age profile. However, you may have to do a bit of research to get figures for ethnicity, religion and disability. But again, you only need rough statistics, and they do not need to be bang up to date, so you could get a useful enough idea from the last census to give you ethnicity and religion, and the Jobcentre should help with disability. Then analyse your own personnel records and compare the results. Hopefully, you are not too far out. But if you are, then you need to do some more analysis.

First of all, check that your training in equal opportunities management and behaviour is sound and well applied. Then have a look at a couple of recent recruitment exercises to see if there are any obvious breaches of good practice; for example, might a clearly disabled candidate have withdrawn because no offer was made to help him or her deal with the interview? Again, hopefully you will not be found obviously wanting, but, nevertheless, there is likely to be — albeit not definitely — some factor in your recruitment process that explains the difference between the job market and your domestic profile. Look at your job descriptions and ascertain that they show primarily the competencies required in each job and do not ask for more than is required. Look also at your job advertisements, which again should highlight competencies and skills required rather than qualifications. A requirement for two A-levels may well put off foreigners who have different qualifications, so say instead that the ideal candidate is likely to have two A-level or equivalent qualifications. Look also at how and where you advertise jobs. Word-of-mouth recruitment is dangerous because it is likely to attract similar sorts of people to the employee concerned. Senior jobs may safely be advertised in the national or trade press, but positions that you would expect to fill locally are traditionally advertised in the local press, which, may not hit all sections of the local population. Quite a few ethnic groups, for example, have their own newspapers, some in languages other than English, and, therefore, would be precluded from your recruitment ads. Some newspapers put the job ads straight after the sport pages, which many women will not read. And some people may not take newspapers at all but will read adverts in newsagents’ windows.

If you find no obvious faults in your advertising or interviewing exercises, look where certain groups are under-represented in your organisation and consider what you might do to attract more of them. Visits to schools and colleges can be useful, but target them well. If you seem short of boys or girls in sales work, target appropriate schools, and indeed try to counter gender stereotyping, for example by encouraging boys to take up nursing and girls to take up engineering careers. Organise recruitment evenings in ethnic areas, or in places where elderly people meet. Have speakers attend Women’s Institute meetings to tell members what opportunities you have for women. Contact MIND and charities for blind, deaf and other disabled people to tell them what jobs you carry out, and ask what you can do to help their clients take employment with you. Carry out operations such as these, even when you have no vacancies at present, so that, when something does arise, you can bring the vacancy to people who may be interested.

Despite actions such as these, you may still find yourself with significant gaps. However, if you keep evidence of your efforts, you will have a strong defence if you are challenged. And what is more, you will have made sure that you do not miss out on an ideal candidate because he or she is in a group who, for whatever reason, do not relate to your traditional recruitment campaigning.