A recent survey has uncovered disturbing ignorance of discrimination law.

It is a busy time for employment lawyers: the first anniversary of legislation outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, religion or belief passed last month, new laws on disability discrimination came into force in October and laws against age discrimination are on their way. The question is: do they actually work?

Eversheds, my law firm, recently questioned more than 2000 people to monitor awareness and opinions of current and future discrimination legislation. More than half of all respondents (54%) felt that the law as it stands fails to stop discriminatory behaviour in the workplace.

The policy–reality gap
With so much legislation in place or on the way, it is worrying that many of those questioned don’t believe it does any good. There seems to be a gulf emerging between company policy and reality – a gap reflected in the statistics that 65% of senior manager questioned, as well as 36% of Human Resources professionals, doubted whether anti-discrimination policies are effective. Most organisations of any size have appropriate policies and rules in place, but it’s hard to ensure these are reflected in the way people behave.

Indeed, there even seems to be some confusion about what anti-discrimination laws actually defend against. Twelve per cent of employers questioned thought there was legal protection against weight discrimination and 9% believed there was similar protection on the grounds of appearance.

It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the workplace doesn’t appear to be prepared for the next wave of legislation, which will protect all workers – both young and old – from age discrimination. Awareness of the new rules, which are due to come into force in October 2006, is worryingly low in all areas of the workplace. Less than half (48%) of the workers questioned are aware of the legislation and even HR professionals are not up to speed, with 40% unable to state when the laws will take effect.

Age concern
This is of particular concern as current company policies are clearly failing to stamp out age discrimination in the UK workplace. The research suggests one in three employees has been a victim of age discrimination and one in five workers is aware of a recruitment decision that has been influenced by age. And it’s not just discrimination against older workers that businesses need to tackle. The questionnaire indicates that younger workers faced the most discrimination, with almost 60% of 16 to 24 year olds having felt unfairly treated because of their age or perceived lack of experience.

Unfortunately there is not the same taboo surrounding age discrimination as there is for other areas in which we already have legislation. It is not yet considered unacceptable to call someone a silly old woman or young and foolish. Those who fail to address this should brace themselves for a significant number of claims when such laws are eventually in place.

Management’s role

Every employee has a role to play in tackling discrimination through their own behaviour. Changes to the law and company policies will not stamp out discrimination on their own; they need to be reinforced with training and committed leadership from senior managers.

There are still a lot of misconceptions about what discrimination laws mean for the working environment. Some workers are still unaware that if they make a colleague feel awkward because of their sexual orientation or religion, this would be classed as harassment. Businesses have a responsibility to brush up on their law and make sure their HR policies are not just paid lip service to, but are carried through at all levels.

Gareth Edwards is an associate at Eversheds