On 1 October the Equality Act 2010 became law. Its stated intention is to end discrimination in the workplace. The likely result is it will poison relationships between colleagues and employer-employee. It urges us all to view ourselves as victims in need of state intervention to police our working lives.
The legislation introduces the concept of ‘discrimination by perception’ and ‘association’ to more ‘protected characteristics’ which is particularly problematic. No discrimination needs to have taken place for a case to be made against a co-worker or employer. The ‘victim’ just has to perceive discrimination. The perceived discrimination doesn’t even need to be against someone in the workplace. You can feel discriminated against because you know a Muslim and someone makes a joke about Burkas.
The act attempts to protect employees from offence. What it does is undermines the ability of people to sort out issues between themselves. In fact trying to sort out a problem between yourselves could itself be considered harassment. If someone is offended by something you have said, a joke for instance, explaining yourself to them could be seen as rubbing it in, multiplying the offence felt. Your intentions are not important. The psychological state of the offended person is primary.
This deeply illiberal act encourages everyone to see their colleagues not as allies with a common interest who can group together to fight redundancies for example. Rather they are rivals, racists, sexual predators and sexists.
Banter between colleagues in the workplace is one of the things that makes many jobs worth having. Loyalty to colleagues can often make someone stay in a job they dislike. Tedious tasks which form some part of most jobs are made sufferable by chit-chat and occasionally ribbing from workmates. Yet it is these positive aspects of workplace relations that are being undermined.
In the past people had no problem coping in the workplace or with being offended. A friend of mine who worked in a factory in the 1970s still talks fondly of the practical jokes played on him, and the ones he played on his work mates like the initiation ceremonies played on 16 year old apprentices by the women in the factory - stripping them naked, tying them to a chair and covering them in sticky ‘Barrier Cream’ and tissue paper.
Or during a round of wage negotiations, someone put up a sign saying the factory was getting a visit from a Russian delegation who were coming to inspects parts for the Soviet Air force. People were advised that they would need to learn the words of The Red Flag, and song sheets could be obtained from the boss. The boss, already tense from the negotiations, was inundated by workers asking for words to the socialist anthem.
More everyday activities like giving people ‘the bumps’ on their birthday were concealed from the foreman by the person on the receiving end pretending they had fainted in the heat. “Of course we could have got the sack for any of these antics”, said my friend, “but we covered up for each other”. “Whatever you did to someone they always got you back”.
The relationships we form at work are some of the most important ones we have because they arise in the public sphere and are based on common interests. This would once have been expressed through, amongst other things, union membership and drinking together. Today, asking people if they fancy a pint after work could be construed as...well who knows? That’s the problem.
Society is more atomised today than ever before. The last thing we need is for it to become even more so.
Jason Smith is co-convenor, Birmingham Salon and on the committee of this year’s Battle of Ideas festival 30-31 October