All law-abiding companies have an equal opportunities policy, but very few are fully implementing them. At last, though, the business advantages of doing so are being recognised, as companies realise that valuing staff is the key to success. Moreover, many clients require bidders to demonstrate implementation of an equal opportunities policy to qualify for work.
An equal opportunities policy is about establishing effective mechanisms to ensure fair treatment of all employees and potential employees, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, age, marital status, mobility and so on. It is about using business aims and competence as the criteria for selection, training and development, and encouraging all staff and managers to treat each other with respect. In a nutshell, it is about good management and good behaviour. But how do you go about it?
Communication of the equal opportunities policy starts with the written word, but discussion and role play are usually needed to enable staff to understand fully the implications of their actions. For example, senior colleagues attending an interviewing skills course might blatantly discriminate against female applicants during role play by rejecting those planning to have children. But they will learn that their approach needs to change to support the company’s equal opportunities policy and, indeed, to stay within the law.
It can also be illuminating to hear, say, a wheelchair user’s views on the irrational assumptions interviewers make about their ability to do certain jobs. The solution is to introduce a competence-based selection procedure.
A one-day course in equal opportunities is a priority for all managers – and all board members – before they are allowed to select staff for recruitment or promotion.
Training is also necessary to help staff become aware of the need to treat each other with respect and to familiarise them with the business arguments for implementing equality, so they are motivated to perform well.
Board-level leadership is essential, to demonstrate the company’s values and to give sufficient weight to the policy. Some chief executives may be unwilling to confront the sensitive issue of training to overcome ingrained prejudices but it is necessary if the company wants to secure its reputation as a good employer.
Many people view target-setting with discomfort, because it brings into play the prospect of failure. But it is essential in identifying objectives and analysing the barriers to getting there.
One of the easiest targets to achieve is the delivery of equal opportunities training to all employees.
Another target is that the company’s workforce should be representative of the surrounding population. This would translate, for example, into 50% women at every level in the organisation – difficult to achieve in the short term because of a shortage of women with the right training. But a committed company will give appropriate training, so that capable women can reach the highest levels, and support external initiatives encouraging girls to join construction in the first place.
Produce a simple document clearly outlining unacceptable behaviour, such as sexual harassment, racial discrimination, bullying and victimisation, and be prepared to discipline employees who adopt such behaviour.
Failure to do so would be regarded as complicity at an industrial tribunal and would also damage a company’s reputation. A confidential grievance system and monitoring of the type and number of complaints are effective ways of managing problems.
When setting out on this journey, record the starting point. A cultural audit of the company will identify data, such as the number of women at each level, numbers of black and ethnic minority employees, number and type of job applicants, awareness of the equal opportunities policy and grievance system.
Attitude surveys can give valuable information on whether employees feel they are treated with respect and whether they believe grievances would be taken seriously. Repeating these exercises gives the pulse of the company and identifies improvements over time.
Action can be taken in small steps. Consider offering flexible working hours, opportunities for part-time work and the possibility of working from home when it suits the individual and job.
It is not enough to explain a low number of women employees by saying “women don’t apply here”. Find out why, and if you are prepared to hear the results and act on them, you will be starting to implement your policy.
For further advice, contact the government taskforce Change the Face of Construction on 020-8305 2277 or www.change-construction.org.
Eight steps to equalitySuccessful implementation of an equal opportunities policy depends on:
- All staff knowing, understanding and being committed to the policy
- Responsibility and leadership at board level
- Regular monitoring of workforce data and attitudes
- Target-setting and identification of reasons for shortfalls
- Problem-solving and action to overcome shortfalls
- Confidential and trusted grievance procedures
- Known and effective disciplinary procedures
- Using outside help when expertise or independence is required.
Helen Stone is an independent consultant providing services in management. Sandi Rhys Jones runs her own marketing and management consultancy specialising in construction.