Guidance for employers

How to ensure a fair workplace

Optometrist with patient

Organisations should promote an open culture of respect and dignity for all employees, and value difference. You should be creating the safest and most inclusive environment possible.

As an employer, even if you do not personally discriminate against someone, you have a responsibility for acts carried out by your employees in the course of employment. This includes conduct at work and conduct linked to work, eg work related social events.

1. What can I do to create an inclusive environment in the workplace?

You should regularly look at your policies and working practices to check they do not create or encourage unfair discrimination or bias. You should also consider creating a written diversity and inclusion policy to show employees that you take your legal and moral obligations seriously, and expect them to do likewise. Bear in mind that in the event of a claim that you have acted illegally, you need to be able to show that you took all reasonable steps to avoid problems. It also shows employees what you expect of them.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of actions you can take:

  • Familiarise yourself with the law and guidance
  • Have HR policies and processes that promote diversity and inclusion
  • Think inclusively when devising policies and procedures to make sure they’re practical and aim to cater appropriately for the needs and preferences of a diverse workforce
  • Make it clear that any kind of discrimination or breach of the equal opportunities policy will be dealt with as a disciplinary matter and that serious cases of deliberate discrimination may amount to gross misconduct resulting in dismissal
  • You should, if possible, have a manager who is responsible for ensuring the policy is implemented/adhered to and the policy itself should invite staff to make suggestions to that person about how it could be improved. If the practice is small, employees could be encouraged to raise issues with any director
  • Monitor and evaluate policies and practices regularly to refresh them and ensure they support a diverse workplace, where everyone feels they belong, regardless of their background
  • Track the impact of policies and practices with relevant  facts and figures, such as the proportion of job applicants vs appointees who are in protected groups, and the pay levels of men and women doing equivalent work
  • Review your policies regularly so that they remain fresh and think critically about how you are applying them in practice
  • Actively encourage employees to highlight issues about inequality and to propose change
  • Identify and address unconscious bias (see the ACAS website for more information)
  • Make standards of behaviour clear to everyone through regular and appropriate communication methods, promoting a culture of personal responsibility for treating people with respect and dignity and adopting a zero tolerance approach to discrimination
  • Raise awareness about the importance of different views and ideas in connection with business performance
  • Provide suitable training to ensure people understand what equality and race and diversity are and how to respond to issues. Ensure that all managers (and preferably all staff) have training in their obligations under the Equality Act 2010 

2. How to deal with staff and patients

Ensure that staff know that they will be listened to if they come to you with any complaint, and that it will be treated confidentially. You should encourage open conversations and listen to staff. 

Where the matter raised relates to the conduct of a patient, remember that you have a duty of care towards your staff member, to act in accordance with your duty of mutual trust and confidence and to provide a safe working environment. Remember that in the testing room in particular it is possible for a staff member to feel very vulnerable as the only person in the room with a patient. 

Ask staff what they would like to see and if they have any ideas about how to prevent these things or how to handle difficult patients. Make clear that you will support staff who raise complaints about patients’ conduct and that you will support them if they refuse to answer personal questions that make them uncomfortable.

Listen to any complaints made and empathise. Do not dismiss their complaints out of hand.

Do not pander to patients who seek to discriminate against staff, for instance by expressing a preference to see an optometrist of a certain ethnicity or gender. Consider ways of taking preventative action. You can have posters in the waiting room and testing room, reminding patients that staff must be respected and that any form of discrimination, abuse or harassment of staff will not be tolerated. 

Our posters make it clear that as an equal opportunity employer you support the rights of staff not to have to answer personal questions, particularly about their ethnicity, race or nationality. 

3. How do I deal with a complaint of discrimination?

It is important to act promptly on these issues and not to perpetuate the harassing environment or treat the complainant badly in the way you investigate the complaint, by not treating it as confidential, or by how you treat the worker once the complaint has been dealt with. 
  • Make it clear in the written grievance procedure that it’s a good idea to see if the matter can be resolved by an informal conversation before raising a formal written complaint
  • Most employees will raise the grievance issue orally before putting it in writing. It is therefore prudent to respond to any concern that a member of staff talks to you about appropriately with a considered and balanced response. If you give a final response during the conversation, you should keep a note of what was said
  • Consider involving employees or their representatives in the production or revision of a written grievance procedure
  • Make sure managers know how to recognise and deal with grievance situations promptly and effectively
  • Ensure equal opportunities, anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies are in place and make sure that all workers are aware of them and the standards of behaviour expected of them
  • Offer alternative semi-formal means of dispute resolution, such as workplace mediation, and consider building in the use of mediation as a voluntary step in the formal grievance procedure 

4. My employee has raised a grievance. What do I do?

  • Follow your own internal policy and contact our employment team for guidance
  • Try to avoid an antagonistic approach and keep an open mind
  • It is important for the employer to respond appropriately in order that the situation does not escalate, resulting in the employee becoming further aggrieved 
  • After the employee has raised the grievance you should act promptly and invite them to a meeting to discuss the matter
  • Allow them to be accompanied by a colleague or trade union representative  
  • If their representative is not available and they propose a reasonable alternative time within five working days of the original date you should accommodate this
  • You should investigate without delay and give your decision in writing within a reasonable time
  • Bear in mind that if possible, you might need a suitable senior manager or director to hear any appeal against the grievance decision, so you should keep the deliberations and issues relating to the hearing of the grievance itself confidential
  • Follow the ACAS Code
  • Refer to the ACAS Guide: Discipline and grievances at work and the ACAS guidance: Discrimination: what to do it it happens if dealing with a grievance in this regard

5. What kind of conduct might I as an employer be liable for?

As an employer, even if you do not personally discriminate against someone, you have a responsibility for acts carried out by your employees in the course of employment. This includes conduct at work and conduct linked to work, eg work related social events.

Most harassment in employment is carried out by colleagues. The employer can be liable for this, whether or not it is done with the employer's knowledge or approval. If one of your staff harasses another, then in order to defend any claim that you were responsible, you would need to show that you had taken all reasonable steps to prevent the discrimination.

In terms of conduct by patients, the situation is more complex, but an employer who ignores such complaints or fails to take preventative steps may be responsible for creating or continuing the harassment.

The way employers handle this type of complaint could also lead to arguments that they have directly discriminated against or victimised the worker ie treated them badly for complaining of discrimination.