[Feature] Why Equality Matters in the Global Workplace

Matt Howse and Lee Harding
- Leadership - Jul 07, 2014

Global equality issues are increasingly important in our digital world. Although we are becoming increasingly connected, sensitive cultural differences often exist between different countries.

These are sometimes subtle and at times, stark.  They can never be ignored by multinational companies wishing to expand.  It is tempting to carve the world up into trading blocks. The EMEA, for example, is described as a homogenised economic unit. However, employers must take great care when managing a global workforce.

Many countries aspire to equality as a social objective. This is often achieved through legislation focused on protecting different demographic groups.

For example, employers are prohibited from unlawful discrimination against employees relating to a protected characteristic (i.e. age, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation).  

The level of protection is variable even in the EU.  This is evident from recent criticism of the treatment of Muslim women in France compared to other EU countries since the wearing of a full-face veil in public became prohibited.

Following a recent challenge, this was found to be lawful by the European Court of Human Rights because the systematic concealment of the face in public places was contrary to the ideal of “living together” necessary for social interaction in French society.

For global employers, there is often the need to balance competing demands.  In some Middle Eastern countries, homosexual acts carry the death penalty under sharia law, and the dress code and behaviour of women (including unmarried pregnant women) is also heavily prescribed. 

If an employer deems someone based in Europe as unsuitable for a secondment because of their sexual orientation, the employer may face a discrimination claim from the unsuccessful candidate. 

However, it will obviously be highly undesirable if an employee is discriminated against or harmed in the new country. Generally, it is unlawful for employers to directly discriminate against an employee in the EU because of sexual orientation or pregnancy even if a good business reason exists.

Consequently, employers can struggle to balance the need to maintain their employees’ safety when on secondment with the need to comply with anti-discrimination laws back home.

Employers should at least ensure employees are fully aware and advised of the relevant risks, and offered practical guidance and cultural training if the secondment proceeds.

Where a global employer is headquartered in a country with a reputation for recognising equality and diversity amongst different demographic groups, it could be assumed that they should apply exactly the same values even when operating in countries which do not share the same values. 

Such an idealistic approach can, however, cause problems and cultural and ethnic tensions between different groups in Africa, for example, should be recognised rather than ignored when managing indigenous employees. 

Practically, such issues need to be factored in when requiring employees from one demographic group to interact with other demographic groups, whether that is through line management responsibilities or the tasks that are expected of the employee when engaging with potential customers.

To nurture a global brand and reputation, many global employers apply a global equality policy to their international workforce. Some employers adopt a harmonised approach to ensure, for example, the same universal principles are followed when deciding how to pay or discipline an employee across countries in which they operate. 

Alternatively, employers have detailed rules implementing the minimum legal requirements on a country-by-country basis. As a general rule, the greater the employer’s global footprint, the more likely it is that the policy will be based on principles rather than rules.  

For many consumers, there is a strong moral case for the eradication of all discrimination. Naturally, the principles of an employer and its customers are closely aligned. 

However, there is an overwhelming business case for greater equality in the workplace.  A wealth of academic evidence shows that a lack of a good equality policy contributes to negative employee outcomes such as high turnover, loss of talented employees, lower job satisfaction, legal claims and bad publicity.  And that is why equality makes the business world go around.


Matt Howse and Lee Harding are from global law firm Morgan Lewis

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