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27 April 2006

How do you discriminate?

Consider this imaginary scenario.

You're a bouncer at a nightclub wondering whether to let people in.

Two people wait to get in. One in a nice suit and tie, the other is rather scruffily dressed with long hair and wearing what can best be described as a white sheet with very casual shoes.

Who do you let in? Most nightclubs would of course go for the nice looking gentleman in the suit.


Congratulations, you just let in Hitler and left Jesus standing outside.


An imaginary situation, but one that highlights how much we can discriminate on appearance and how we should be looking at the person rather than the clothes they wear.

Our society is riddled with opportunities for discrimination and the UK is one of the few countries in the world with a wholly uncodified constitution (the others are New Zealand, Bhutan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Israel). If we had a constitution and set out a fundamental principle that all citizens are equal and discrimination is illegal we would be a lot further forward. Instead, we end up with piecemeal legislation with loopholes in it that starts with the premise that discrimination is legal unless the legislation says otherwise. So in 1975 we had the Sex Discrimination Act. In 1976 the Race Relations Act (amended 2000). In 1995 the Disability Discrimination Act. In 2003, Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations outlawed religious discrimination. In 2006, there is The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations. In 2007 the Gender Equality Duty.

Why not just start from the premise that everyone is equal, appropriate measures should be put in place to allow equal opportunity and any discrimination should only be on the person's ability to do the job or in other specific limited circumstances. Then we wouldn't be tying up so much of our parliamentarians' time passing another new law ever few years with the ensuing loopholes and nuances best understood by lawyers. It might put an end to the discrimination of women at golf clubs for instance. Then there's the purely childcare element following a birth that women can enjoy for up to 12 months yet men are lucky if they get 2 weeks (has anyone worked out the implications of this for adoption?). Indeed it might even put an end to male only clubs such as the Masons and Rotarians.

Anyway, as a society over the last 30 years we have steadily moved away from discrimination based on sex, disability, religion and race and focused much more on the abilities of the individual rather than their appearance as a woman, whether they wear a turban, the colour of their skin and so on. Much more on the person and less on what they look like.

The last discrimination is perhaps the example at the nightclub and dress codes. Putting this in the workplace, the issue of dress codes is still a touchy subject with many successful companies (Google, Amazon) going for the "who cares" approach right through to banks and consultancy groups with the full suit and tie and the ensuing issues in offices with poor air conditioning. It isn't about professionalism, since many professional companies have informal dress at work. It's a cultural thing and cultural attitudes are always notoriously difficult to argue against and change. Different offices, companies and indeed countries have different cultures and it's a question of blending in. It certainly wouldn't be appropriate for the police for instance to lose their uniform and visual identity.

What surprises me though is the minefield that many companies create for themselves in the complexity of the dress code regulations and the amount of time spent debating them whilst at the same time allowing people with mohican hair cuts and not saying anything about that. Clearly a measure of common sense is required and we should look at the trend of the last 30 years - it's the person's ability to do the job that really matters. This isn't about jeans and t-shirts in the dot com era, casual dress in the workplace goes back to Digital (DEC) in the 1950s and even before that.

Keep it simple, focus on the ability to do the job. Save time discussing the detail. Things would be simpler if we had a constitution framed that way, and things would be simpler in the workplace too.

Or will we continue to leave Jesus waiting at the door?

Craig

p.s. I'm not telling you what I'm wearing!
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