Unequalled nonsense

The Equality Act is making an unwelcome reappearance with the addition of a further and still more fatuous and irrelevant provision.

The Equality Act is making an unwelcome reappearance this month with the addition of a further and still more fatuous and irrelevant provision, this time for employers to take the 'positive action' of employing someone from an under-represented group over an equally qualified candidate.

Talk about fiddling while Rome burns. While most small companies are struggling for their very survival - and plenty, tragically, are losing that grim struggle - the government is distracted with the latest piece of spectacularly irrelevant employment legislation to add to the confusion of red tape that already burdens small business.

The latest clause in the Equality Act claims it will enable employers to achieve a 'more balanced' workforce by selecting candidates from 'under-represented' sections of the community. Apparently totally deaf to the fact that four out of five firms are opposed to using positive action in recruitment, according to research carried out earlier this year by law firm DLA Piper, the government has blundered ahead, presumably spurred on by some misguided sense of social justice.

'Implementation of quotas…will inevitably lead to the hiring of less able people,' says one of the senior business people polled by DLA Piper, while another remarks: 'Companies must be able to choose the best people available for all jobs.' Fair enough observations you might think, so why does the government refuse to listen?

Before Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone’s announcement that the provision for positive action will become law from April 2011, there was already ample proof that the Equality Act was little more than a scourge on smaller employers. Take the provision to outlaw 'third party harassment' for example, which is set to deal a devastating blow to workplace humour, that great bond that reinforces the sense of togetherness that makes great teams tick and makes having a job such a positive part of existence for those people lucky enough to have one.

The outlawing of third party harassment means that if someone takes offence at a joke or some banter in the office - even if it’s not aimed at them or anything to do with them - they can sue their employer. I can’t begin to express how ridiculous this whole notion is and how potentially destructive it could be for businesses and employees, with small businesses inevitably coming off worst.
 
It’s blatantly clear that no one who has been involved in coming up with this misguided legislation has ever worked in a small business. If they had they would realise that brilliant teams and the dynamics within them are critical to the success of a small organisation - more so than in a larger, more disjointed company - and that the Equality Act is putting them at risk.
 
Creating some type of Orwellian society where employees feel that Big Brother is perpetually on the prowl and listening in on their private conversations for evidence of 'harassment' not only suppresses natural human instincts for interaction but also goes against all modern thinking on how to communicate with employees.
 
I’m proud of the brilliant teams and happy workforce who are the lifeblood of Martek Marine and central to the company’s success. And I know beyond any doubt that instilling fear into people at work and stifling emotional engagement with colleagues is not a productive way forward.
 
The Daily Mail has been predictably quick to condemn the new Equality Act, laying the blame largely at the door of the previous government for what it proclaims is 'the end of the office joke'. My standpoint, though, is not party political, but one of an entrepreneur. I know from experience that great teams and great companies are built on mutual trust and respect, not on encouraging a mentality of fearfulness and back-watching.
 
The Equality Act, and its latest 'positive action' clause, may have been created with the very best of intentions but for me, and for many business leaders out there, it’s a step too far.