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Avoid making assumptions based on sex, new Acas guidance warns

Employers and employees should avoid making assumptions about people because of their sex, new guidance from Acas advises.

This includes generalisations about character, performance, capability, suitability for work, personality traits and appearance.

It's easy to make assumptions without realising it - what is known as Unconscious bias. In fact, it's sometimes a way that we make decisions when we have to do so quickly, or are under stress or tired.

But when it comes to reasoned, conscious decision-making, such as is required during recruitment, promotion or most other workplace situations, relying on prejudices and stereotypes can lead to unfavourable treatment of certain groups.

Uninformed opinions about colleagues based on their sex, and actions stemming from those opinions, are likely to be discriminatory, the guide said.

How might such assumptions crop up in the working environment?

Let's take the example of a manager who has said that he didn't want a particular female employee because her caring responsibilities meant she was unreliable and couldn't put as much into her work as her colleagues.

This opinion is not only likely to cause offence, damage morale, and upset anyone at the workplace with children - it could also land the organisation with a sex discrimination claim.

Even stereotypes intended to be complimentary could cause offence, the advice said.

For example, saying 'It's good we have some level-headed men in the office to help keep things calm' suggests that women are not level-headed or calm, and is likely to be offensive and discriminatory.

Or praising a team as well organised, because women know how to keep things in order, could upset the team's men and be considered discriminatory.

An equality policy supported by an effective action plan and staff training, followed by monitoring to check the measures are working, can help stop discrimination from happening.

Acas publications and services

The Acas publication pdf icon Sex discrimination: key points for the workplace [472kb] explains how Sex discrimination can occur in the workplace, how it can be dealt with and how to reduce the chance of future discrimination.

The guide pdf icon Prevent discrimination: support equality [404kb] aims to help employers and managers minimise the risk of discrimination, promote equality and diversity, and manage workforces fairly.

Acas experts can visit your organisation and help managers, employees and employee representatives with issues related to bullying, harassment and discrimination, as well as help with the organisation's equality and diversity policy. See Equality and diversity: how Acas can help for more details.

Practical training is also available on Discrimination, Equality, diversity and the Equality Act 2010, and Skills for supervisors.

For free, impartial advice and guidance visit Acas Helpline Online.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects area for more information.

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We recommend that you explore further information and advice available on this website, particularly within our Advice A-Z guidance pages. If you have questions about workplace rights and rules visit Helpline Online.
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