Newcastle United go down…

Newcastle United hit the headlines for non-footballing reasons last week when they were found to have discriminated on the grounds of disability against one of their former players, Jonas Gutierrez. Apart from its high profile nature, the case has several interesting points for small business which often worry (unnecessarily) about disability issues.

The first thing to remember is that anyone diagnosed with cancer is classed as disabled under the Equality Act – no matter how early in the disease or how “healthy” the individual may appear. It seems that Newcastle either failed to accept this or chose to ignore it.

Secondly – an employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to allow a disabled employee to undertake their work. Reasonable is the key word here – it needs to take account of the size of business, nature of the work being done and how practical it is to make the adjustment. An “adjustment” need not be some physical change – it could be that you accept that someone with a disability has their targets or outputs adjusted, or even something as simple as allowing home working if the job can still be done that way. In Newcastle’s case, it was not adjusting the appearance target required to trigger a contract extension, given Gutierrez’ need to attend treatment. (They then compounded this by an act of direct discrimination, by not picking him when he was fit to ensure he couldn’t achieve the appearance target).

Thirdly, the case shows that if you are taken to tribunal – for any reason – it is important to have a clear and convincing argument that would sound reasonable to anyone not involved in the case. The tribunal concluded that senior figures at the football club were “evasive”, “vague” and “lacking in credibility”. Contrary to the view of some employers, tribunal judges aren’t biased in favour of employees but they are generally adept at spotting bulls*t – whether this comes from the individual making the claim or the employer’s witnesses.

As always, the advice is to consider what you can do to help an employee diagnosed with cancer or with any other form of disability; but that can be balanced against what you can realistically do as a business. And if you have made an error, don’t try to defend the indefensible!

Time to ditch the Equal Opps questionnaire?

Some months ago I was working with a client on a recruitment project, and they provided me a copy of their “Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form”. It was certainly a comprehensive document, covering as it did around 20 different definitions of ethnic origin, a dozen major world religions, an option to declare if your birth gender was different to your current gender and five options for sexual orientation. In line with good practice the form carried a declaration that it was not part of the selection process and would be detached from the individual’s application; it was anonymous and every question had a “prefer not to say” option.

This sort of form is pretty common throughout HR departments – certainly in the UK – and it is, in my experience, genuinely used for the stated purpose, i.e. simply monitoring applications to ensure that the organisation is attracting candidates from all sections of the community. But something about it left me feeling uneasy and wondering why we are really doing this. While I have had conversations in the past about why so few women are applying for a particular role or that the company seems to have an issue attracting candidates from a minority ethnic group despite being based in an area which has a high population, I can honestly say that I’ve never had a discussion about “this vacancy seems to be attracting a large number of transgender candidates – I wonder why that is?” or “We’re not getting many Sikh applicants, do you think we’ve got a problem?”

Now that could be that as a profession we’re just not as aware of discrimination when it doesn’t involve race or sex. But it could also point to the fact that we are operating simply as data collectors in order to tick a box (and indeed in the traditional risk-averse HR way, storing the information purely as insurance against a discrimination claim: “Us – discriminatory? We’ve had 17 lesbians apply in the last 6 months”)

But my main sense of unease is the intrusive nature of the questions. We talk a lot about candidate experience and trust in employment relationships. Yet for many individuals, one of their first contacts with a potential employer is to be asked a lot of extremely personal questions – and then to believe that someone they have never met will keep their stated promise that “this information doesn’t form part of the selection process”.

Of course, without the information, organisations won’t necessarily know if we do have a problem in recruitment. But is there a better way to do it? One that better balances the company’s requirements without the need to pry into personal information that we admit is of no relevance to the role we’re recruiting for. I don’t have an answer – do you?

Brussels backs Brits on Fatties

I’ve blogged before about the nonsense that tabloid (and sometimes more “reputable”) newspapers publish about employment law – for example here and here. So it didn’t surprise me when they cottoned on to the “obesity as a disability” story, particularly as it also allowed them to indulge in their other favourite pastime of bashing “Europe”. The Daily Star took the story to new heights of fantasy with this piece.

Of course, it’s no wonder that many small businesses have concerns about employment law when they read stories like this one. And it provides fuel for those with a political axe to grind. So let’s look at the facts in this case, rather than the fiction.

The reports reflect an opinion expressed by the Advocate General of the EU. Although this is merely an expert legal opinion, his view is usually – but not always – adopted by the European court when it makes a judgment. Updated 18 December 2014 – the European Court decision, which can be found here, does, as expected, broadly follow this, although it removes the reference to Body Mass Index below.

What the Advocate General said was that anyone who is “morbidly obese” (with a Body Mass Index of 40 or more) is not disabled. However there may be certain circumstances where the consequences of this obesity are that the person cannot fully participate in work. In such a situation the individual might be (but isn’t automatically) disabled and therefore governed by equality legislation.

This viewpoint is consistent with current UK case law, which states that obesity is not in itself a disability but it may lead people to suffer from conditions which are a disability.

In this respect, it places obesity on a similar footing to drug or alcohol addiction. Simply being dependent on drugs or alcohol is not a disability. But if someone develops a condition which is a disability (for example becoming HIV positive) as a consequence of their addiction they will be classed as disabled under the Equality Act.

Even if they are disabled, your duty as an employer is to make “reasonable adjustments”. What is reasonable for a small company in rented accommodation is vastly different to what is reasonable in a large employer with their own premises. You’re not necessarily obliged to strengthen floors, provide extra wide chairs or any of the other things that reports have mentioned.

So, as always, don’t panic when you read stories like this. Instead, enjoy this classic “Not the 9 O’Clock News” sketch.

(Thanks are due to Equality & Diversity consultant Anne Tynan, who tweeted about the Daily Star story and Employment Barrister Daniel Barnett whose Employment Law bulletins provide a readable and accurate summary of the Advocate General’s opinion).

(I’m fully aware that the European Court is based in Strasbourg. But the alliterative headline is a tabloid staple, accurate or not)