Businesses are in danger of falling foul of new guidelines on racial discrimination which come into force soon, law firm Shoosmiths has warned.
It is advising employers to review their policies and procedures before the Code of Practice on Racial Equality in Employment takes effect on April 6.
Peter Duff, partner and head of the employment team at Shoosmiths, said it was vital employers ensured they followed the new guidance drawn up by the Commission for Racial Equality, the first update since 1984.
He went on: "There have been many developments and key changes in discrimination law since the previous code came into effect 20 years ago and employers need to be aware of these.
"Although the code does not have the statutory force of the law, employers will have a better defence against claims of racial discrimination or harassment if they can show they have followed the code's recommendations. Failure to do so could count against them at an employment tribunal."
The guidelines outline employers' legal obligations under the Race Relations Act 1976 to prevent racial discrimination or harassment and to treat all applicants and workers in the same way, irrespective of their race, colour, nationality, national origins or ethnic background.
Everything from advertising for employees, application forms, inter-views, training and promotion, language in the workplace, through to dismissals and employers' responsibilities to former employees is included. There are also recommendations for trade unions and employment/ recruitment agencies.
Mr Duff said the code called on employers to draw up an equal opportunities policy that covers their commitment to equality as well as their procedures and practice. It recommends that the policy is widely publicised and the employer makes sure all workers under-stand it. Special training may need to be provided.
"Employers are legally responsible for any unlawful racial discrimination or harassment at their workplace, even if they are not aware of it taking place," he cautioned. "They can avoid liability if they can show they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent this, such as following the code.
"Fostering good relations in the workplace is very important and can reduce the risks of costly and time consuming litigation and grievances for employers."
He advises that employers use the same staff when recruiting and interviewing to ensure consistency. Application forms should be kept for 12 months in case of any tribunal claims.