Employers could be forgiven for believing there is a conspiracy of employment lawyers, given the wave of recent changes to employment legislation by the government.
This year there will be changes to maternity rights, new rights to paid adoption and paternity leave, and rights for those with childcare commitments to apply for flexible working arrangements.
In addition, there will be new regulations against discrimination on grounds of religion, belief and sexual orientation. This is against a backdrop of other European-inspired legislation which prohibits unfavourable treatment of part-time workers and those on fixed-term contracts.
This puts an emphasis on employers to ensure diversity and flexibility in the workplace. Those that go beyond the legal requirements can expect to reap the benefits. This is an opportunity, not merely an issue of compliance.
Unsurprisingly, there are many reports on the falling number of women in IT and the problems of retention. If nothing else, employers should be alert to the loss of investment they have already made in their employees.
Employers should constantly revisit their working arrangements to ensure there is no inadvertent discriminatory impact. Indirect discrimination arises when there is a disproportionate impact on one gender which cannot be objectively justified.
From 6 April, parents of children below the age of six, or those with disabled children, have the right to apply to work flexibly. Employers are under a duty to consider these requests seriously. Flexible working is not an automatic right, but this will raise issues as to what is reasonable accommodation.
Good employers should be considering how to deal with these requests and how to promote flexible working. Welcoming the legislative changes and seeking to improve upon them will assist in recruiting and retaining quality staff.
A recent survey from the Department of Trade & Industry found that flexible working hours are more important than money for nearly one third of people looking for a new job. Talent will clearly migrate to those businesses that are already attuned to an appropriate work/life balance.
Increasingly novel approaches are being considered by companies to achieve this end. For example, while needing to be dealt with carefully to avoid the risk of positive discrimination, some employers are considering rewarding recruiters who can place women or ethnic minorities into a post.
Another example is where a type of work has become regarded as the preserve of men or appears unappealing to women. Some employers have introduced internal "secondments" to give their employees an opportunity to try an alternative role or to ensure they have sufficient experience on their CV to enable them to progress in the organisation.
Increasingly, staff will expect good practice, not merely legal compliance. Employers need to be aware of such practice as a benchmark of what will be expected of the "reasonable" employer.
Jonathan Exten-Wright is a partner in the employment team at law firm DLA
This was first published in April 2003