When it comes to Equal Employment Opportunity there are many personal attributes that are protected by various laws. These laws are designed to ensure that we do not suffer discrimination, harassment, adverse action or victimisation as a result of any of our protected attributes, with some common examples below.
- Family or carer’s responsibilities
- Marital or relationship status
- Political opinion
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding
- Sexual orientation
This article takes a closer look at disability as a personal attribute protected by law and that it is unlawful to treat someone unfairly or with disrespect because of a disability. A disability may be a physical or mental disability. It may include a disability the person actually has, or a disability you think they have. It may include past, present or future disability. It may include disability aids like a person using a wheelchair or a guide dog.
Example of forcing unreasonable work duties on a person that cannot undertake them due to a disability
Elizabeth manages a booth at a fundraiser and the members of her team are there to help raise funds for the charity they represent. Elizabeth has told all members of the team that they need to stand up whilst attending the booth and she has removed all the chairs from the booth area.
Tony, a member of the team, has a disability that means he can’t stand for long periods of time. He asks Elizabeth if he can use a chair, but Elizabeth refuses, on the grounds that attendees of the fundraiser are best served by a standing worker and makes a comment along the lines of “There is no special treatment here.”
Elizabeth’s behaviour is inappropriate because her requirement for her team to stand all the time at the conference has indirectly discriminated against Tony, whose disability is a protected attribute.
Indirect discrimination occurs where a person imposes or proposes to impose, a requirement, condition or practise that disadvantages, or is likely to disadvantage, persons with protected attributes. Elizabeth has imposed a requirement that has disadvantaged Tony based on a protected attribute – his disability. It doesn’t matter whether or not Elizabeth intended to discriminate against Tony, or that she treated Tony the same as everyone else, her behaviour still constitutes indirect discrimination based on a protected attribute.
Example of failing to reasonably help a person with a disability to perform their job, for example, by unreasonably refusing to provide adjustable desks or other equipment.
Simon has a disability and uses a wheelchair, and since starting in a new job as a telemarketer, he has found it difficult to perform some of his duties because the desk is too low for the wheelchair and he cannot get close enough to the desk.
After reading his employer’s equal employment opportunity policy, where it explained how to request reasonable accommodations or adjustments in the workplace, Simon approached his manager, Louise, to talk to her about his discomfort and to request an adjustable table for him. Louise responded that she had too many other competing priorities, and that would have to wait because adjusting furniture in the office was not something that “happened around here.”
Simon’s request was for a reasonable adjustment in the workplace as he needed the accommodation to account for his disability so that he could perform the inherent requirements of his job as a telemarketer.
His manager did not handle the situation well. She made him feel that his request was not a priority and also that it was unlikely to be attended to because it was not something that “happened around here.”
In this case, Simon made the right decision to look to the organisation’s equal employment opportunity policy so that he understood how to voice his request to his manager. Unfortunately, his manager was either too busy or ignorant to what reasonable accommodations or adjustments in the workplace meant.
What does this mean?
Disability is a personal attribute protected by law and it is unlawful to treat someone unfairly or with disrespect because of a disability. In both examples in this article, the managers did not attend to reasonable requests being made by a person who had a disability. Such actions (or in this case, lack of action) can expose a business to claims for legal liability and create unnecessary stress to the person and people involved which can have a negative impact on their health and wellbeing.
Why is it important to train people on equal employment opportunity?
Compliance education for topics such as equal employment opportunity is important because it helps individuals understand matters such as requests for reasonable adjustments in the workplace and equal employment opportunity laws. It also helps managers to understand protected attributes and to better manage requests such as those presented in the examples in this article. It encourages people to ask for help if they are unsure.
Where to go for help?
Sentrient is Australia’s #1 online workplace compliance provider and presents online programs that include topics such as work health and safety, privacy, equal employment opportunity, sexual harassment, workplace bullying, and the appropriate use of the internet and social media. More than 50,000 people each year in Australia complete this training as part of company inductions and refresher training. All courses are legally endorsed and present a clear message that we all have a responsibility to contribute to a workplace culture that is safe, inclusive and respectful.