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Although the acronym ESG (environmental, social and governance) is very much of the moment, it crystallises concepts that have long been growing concerns for businesses. Rural estates may not always use the language of business to articulate their ideas, but they are businesses nonetheless. They also occupy a highly visible role within a community, as landlord, employer, charity, investor and more. Many estates will view themselves as forces for good in that community and their commercial interests will depend in part on remaining so.

Rural estates are very aware of the role they play in the environment (the 'E' in ESG), but this article is about something else: equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Again, this is a modern formula, but also an aspect of matters of perennial concern for an estate: its social role (the 'S' in ESG) and good governance (the 'G'). It is not possible to cover everything, but the points below will assist estates to reflect on their identity and culture and help identify steps they may wish to take for the future.

Your estate’s starting point on EDI

Different estates will be at different stages in their thinking on culture and diversity issues, and it can be helpful to first take stock of where your estate is starting from. This might include analysing diversity data across aspects of your estate’s business (recruitment, disciplinary / grievances etc). You might use surveys to assess how employees think the estate is doing on diversity matters. The estate’s values will also be relevant to its culture. Values will be set from the top down and must be lived at all levels of the organisation. Are they clearly articulated and capable of being understood by employees? Are they relevant and in line with modern day values?

Recruitment

More so than ever, employers are alert to inequalities in the workforce. The exercise above will clarify what inequalities and diversity issues might exist in the context of your estate and what steps might be appropriate to tackle them. You might start with a review of your recruitment practices. The recruitment process is the first opportunity for the estate to send a clear message about who they are to applicants and the wider world. As such, ensuring that recruitment practices are fair is key. Reviewing your practices might include:

  • checking selection criteria / job descriptions for direct / indirect discrimination on the grounds of any of the nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation),

  • ensuring any equal opportunities statement is put into practice, and

  • reflecting on how to eradicate bias at the recruitment stage, for example accepting name blind CVs and ensuring more than one person is on an interview panel.

Positive action

Positive action enables employers to take steps to improve equality for employees who share a protected characteristic, without opening themselves up to discrimination claims. Employers can take action to tackle a disadvantage, different need or disproportionately low participation experienced by people with a protected characteristic, provided it is a proportionate means of achieving one of the aims in the legislation. Positive action is voluntary, and where an employer takes steps that satisfy the conditions, they may be able to rely on it to defend a claim of unlawful discrimination. 

Positive action should not be confused with positive discrimination, ie preferential treatment of a person because of a protected characteristic, which is unlawful.

Examples of positive action include inviting applications from target groups, providing mentoring / work shadowing and creating work-based support groups.

Training

The education and training of all members of staff is an essential part of creating a safe work environment. EDI training should be provided to staff on a regular basis. Training is also an opportunity for the estate to bring its values to life.

Managing concerns

Grievance policies should provide employees with a clear channel for raising their concerns. If an employee makes an allegation of discrimination or harassment, it is vital that it is dealt with promptly and fairly under the appropriate policy. Even if a complaint does not describe itself as a grievance, it should not be ignored. It may be that the matter can be resolved on an informal basis such that a formal process is not needed, but disputes are likely to arise where managers fail to take allegations seriously or follow the prescribed procedure. This will harm employee confidence that they will be listened to. Where concerns are raised, you should take appropriate, proportionate steps to address them, including considering whether disciplinary action is appropriate.

Policies and ongoing monitoring

Policies should be regularly reviewed to ensure they remain coherent, relevant and legally compliant, and the impact of any EDI measures should be monitored over time. You may find it helpful to engage an external organisation to review EDI in your estate, to provide more ideas about what more you might wish to do.

Prioritising EDI has clear benefits from a cultural and commercial perspective. As with other businesses, estates are increasingly likely to be called to account on EDI matters, which brings in reputational considerations too. At a time when businesses are increasingly expected to reflect on their culture and impact, forward-thinking estates can be doing the same. For further information, see our article on creating an effective equality, diversity and inclusion strategy here.

Read the Rural Estates Newsletter Spring 2022 in full here.

With thanks to Abigail Black, a trainee in the Employment team, for her assistance with this article.

If you require further information about anything covered in this briefing, please contact Tabitha Juster or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, January 2022

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