18 March 2011 | By Abigail Townsend
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Our biggest asset is our people so we’re conscious of all new legislation, particularly that relating to people issues,” says Caryl Longley, general counsel at Deloitte. The Equality Act 2010 is intended to “update, simplify and strengthen” previous legislation, as well as introduce a clear framework for discrimination law and “protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all”. First announced under Labour, the bill was published on 27 April 2009 and continued its passage through Parliament under the Coalition Government.
The Equality Act is a vast piece of legislation, covering all the discrimination laws introduced in the past 40 years. The bulk of the provisions came into force on 1 October 2010 but the rest are being staggered to allow people and organisations sufficient time to prepare.
The act identifies nine characteristics that are protected from discrimination: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief and sex (including sexual orientation). It also maintains two principal types of discrimination: direct and indirect.
Although the act is not a radical overall of discrimination law, new elements have been introduced. The concept of disability-related discrimination has been repealed, replaced by discrimination “arising from a disability”. The ability to claim indirect disability discrimination is also being introduced.
Direct discrimination based on perception or association is prohibited, which extends an existing legal concept. And it is now illegal to ask an applicant about their health before they have been offered the job. The previous government was keen to ban pay secrecy clauses, but this did not make it into the act.
All employers are affected, but few more so than the professional service firms that often employ thousands of people. One of the big four accountancy firms, the UK arm of the Deloitte network employs 12,000 staff in offices in the UK and Switzerland. Globally, the firm employs “tens of thousands”.
Little surprise then that Longley has been tracking the bill closely. The legal team keeps a log of all upcoming legislation, but this one was particularly pertinent and Longley wanted to be sure the company was not caught unawares.
“We followed the progress of the bill right from the beginning, so we knew it was coming and had the opportunity to talk about potential implications long before it was passed into law.
“We did our own research - we need to use our initiative to make sure we’re up-to-date - and outside counsel also provided advice. This meant I didn’t have to frantically manage resources and put people on the case 24 hours a day, week after week.”
Longley says there were two key aspects of the act’s introduction for her team.
“The first was ensuring we knew what was happening and what the impact was going to be,” she says. “We checked all the policies and procedures to make sure that any changes or tweaks were done on time.
“But there’s also an ongoing exercise of briefings and training sessions, as well as answering any queries that come up. That hasn’t stopped since the act has come into force. It’s about us briefing the HR department so they understand the issues and can communicate them to the business as part of their day-to-day job.
“Training is mainly done internally, but sometimes we get our external law firms to come in,” adds Longley.
“It goes all the way through the firm, including training for interviewers and recruiters, so the minute you step through the door you know what to expect from Deloitte.”
Longley adds that not much has changed since the introduction of the act. In part, that is because it is largely a consolidation of existing laws, but she also puts it down to Deloitte’s innate culture.
“There’s a culture of equality and non-discrimination embedded at Deloitte,” she says. “It comes from our people - the type of people we employ.
We also put a massive amount of effort into engaging and communicating with staff, including using surveys to gauge morale. We have lots of diversity initiatives on the go at any one time. We’re a very large organisation and so are very diverse.”
When The Lawyer spoke to Longley in late 2010 the firm had just finished its annual ’diversity month’. Last year’s featured a series of talks, discussions and articles, including a speech by Gareth Thomas, the former international rugby player who recently came out as gay.
So far, Longley says that “nothing specific” has had to change as a result of the act, but the impact on the wider business is harder to quantify.
“You’ll have to ask me that in a year’s time, when it’s been on the books for a while,” she says.