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Do We Have to Treat Everyone the Same?

Employment Equity

We often ask, “What is employment equity?” at an interview, or just in conversation.
Too many times I have heard people say: “It means treating everyone the same”.

Well, actually it doesn’t – it means treating people fairly, and that may mean treating some people differently from others.

What does that mean in practice?

Let’s take the example of voting. As adult Australian citizens we all have an equal right (indeed responsibility) to vote. For most of us, that means popping down to our local polling place on election day, establishing our identity, marking our choice on the ballot and dropping it in the ballot box.

But what if you have a disability?

Depending on your disability, you may have greater or smaller barriers that get in the way of you being able to cast your ballot. To have equity, you may need some additional assistance. If you are mobility impaired, that assistance may be nothing more than a ramp, or a level access to the polling place.

To push the example further, imagine you are vision impaired or have both hands in plaster. In that case, equity might require allowing another person in the booth with you who could read the ballot if necessary, and mark your choice for you.

And equity isn’t only about people with disabilities — if you were temporarily interstate or overseas, it would mean being able to cast a vote from where you were, rather than having to return to your local polling place.

Maybe you’re thinking: does equity mean we have to bend over backwards to accommodate people’s differences? Not necessarily. Sometimes it is impossible. But generally, equity in employment means that if something can be done, reasonably, to give an individual an equal chance of performing a job, then it should be tried.

For example, Wikipedia estimates that 1 in 1000 people are deaf around the world. In Australia that equates to over 21,000 deaf people, and many more are hearing impaired. One day one of them may well apply for a job in your organisation.

Achieving equality

Employment equity doesn’t mean that you have to place that person in the call centre; but consider for a moment what they may be able to do somewhere in your organisation with some adjustments in the workplace.

I have worked with people with a hearing impairment, and we found that good will and a few changes to work practices went a long way. Where we needed more than that, we engaged an Auslan interpreter, who came in for staff meetings, training and feedback sessions. A number of hearing staff even developed sign language skills. Not only were our deaf staff members integral and productive members of our team; because they were not distracted in our open plan office, they were often more productive than hearing staff members.

Equity is about finding ways to achieve equality; it’s about getting equal outcomes for people with different circumstances. And you may be surprised at the benefits that can bring.

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