Equal opportunities in the workplace

by Ben O'Rourke

Not so long ago, posters exhibited throughout Hong Kong pictured an attractive young woman wearing hot pants and a hard hat and climbing up scaffolding.

Were it not for the Labour Department's logo and a tagline highlighting equal opportunities in the workplace, it could have easily been mistaken for an advertisement for beer. This direct approach did grab the attention of the general public and, no doubt, an employer or two - and perhaps even got its message across.

Today, equal opportunity issues are tackled very seriously, with efforts being lead by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). Institutions such as the Law Society hold seminars and law firms offer consulting services to ensure employers make the right decisions when hiring and firing.

Judith Wong, a senior associate in the Employment Law Group of Allen & Overy, says, "It's an increasing problem for employers, as more and more employees are complaining about unfair treatment". She explains that an increased awareness of employees* rights together with the deceleration in the economy have produced an educated workforce that is prepared to fight for their jobs.

As always, prevention is better than cure. Ms Wong says that there are a couple of key considerations employers must make to avoid time-consuming and potentially costly legal wrangles.

Of utmost importance, she says, is to focus on "vicarious liability", which means that "an employer is liable for their employees' actions during the course of their employment". It is therefore advisable to create an internal system to govern any incidents of inequality or persecution that may occur at any level within the organisation. Action must be taken fairly, as swiftly as possible and in complete confidence for optimum results. The injured party must have enough options available in-house to deal with the problem to their satisfaction, otherwise they will look for help elsewhere. To supplement this, staff should understand that victimisation is not tolerated and be educated in all relevant aspects and procedures, should it occur. Implementing measures to avoid discrimination claims is relatively inexpensive, considering the price of a nightmare scenario that could set a company back HK$1 million.

Secondly, employers must recognise that their employees may not always be comfortable with decisions or assumptions made for their "benefit". In other words, if an employer treats an employee differently for one of the above reasons (regardless of their motive - be it good or bad), it constitutes discrimination. Ms Wong brings the example of a pregnant woman who was given the choice of resigning or accepting a lower position for the same wage, as her employer wrongly believed that she would prefer to be in a less stressful environment as a result of her pregnancy. The woman complained of unfair treatment as a similar ultimatum would not have been issued to an ordinary employee and it was held that discrimination existed. In addition to this, victimisation (in the form of an unreasonable workload and unreasonable warnings) followed her complaint to the EOC.

This case also illustrates, albeit conversely, a problem that has troubled the equal opportunities lobby in the past - silence. Quite often, victims of discrimination are afraid that they will lose their job or be labelled a "trouble maker" if they speak out against their circumstances. This is one reason why it has become common practice among many companies to conduct "climate surveys" to ascertain their employees' level of contentment within the company and expose the prevalence of harassment or discrimination says, Ms Wong. Good communication between staff at all levels is paramount within any successful corporate architecture and requesting feedback will also help create a communal atmosphere and give employees a greater sense of worth - a proven productivity booster.

Generally, employers should put themselves in their employees' position and picture the ideal environment in which they themselves would wish to work. Climbing scaffolding, for example.

Get the best person every time!

In the current economic climate, choosing the right person for the job becomes all the more important. Recruitment decisions based on anything other than the contender's ability to fulfil the requirements of the position can be detrimental to a company in many ways. If employees recognise your stance on equal opportunities when hiring and within the workplace, then their loyalty, respect and diligence will increase greatly.

Discrimination during the recruitment process is defined as determining a candidate's suitability or unsuitability by taking into account any of the following criteria: gender, marital status, pregnancy, disability (physical, mental or viral) or family status. Old-fashioned ideas about what jobs men do and what jobs women do are no longer acceptable, to the point where we wonder why they were there in the first place. Applying equal opportunity measures means expanding the number of potential candidates on the market. By implementing a fair recruitment system, you will get the best person every time.

Taken from Career Times 06 June 2003

(Last review date: 23 August 2013)

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributor.

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