Workplace culture

Workplace culture

Office scene

Businesses that treat staff fairly are more innovative, find it easier to attract and retain skilled people, and ensure that they have a positive corporate image.

Here you can learn more about workplace culture and how it can affect your male and female employees differently. You will also find out how to create a fair and supportive workplace which will enable all your staff to reach their full potential.

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What is workplace culture?

Workplace culture is the combination of the processes, attitudes, values and behaviours that exist within a workplace, and the ways in which they impact on the business and its staff. A culture may be largely determined by the expectations of management, or may have evolved over many years among staff, and is often accepted without question.

While there may never be any intention to exclude particular groups or individuals, certain cultural norms at work can result in some people being disadvantaged. This can include, for example, companies where there is an expectation to work very long hours. Many women find it difficult to balance the demands of their job with childcare, and in the context of a long hours culture, these women are seen as less committed to the business.

Attracting the best talent

Why it is important to get it right

Recruitment mistakes can be costly and recruiting the wrong people can lead to increased staff turnover, reduced productivity and lower staff morale. Unfair recruitment practices can also lead to financial penalties. Discrimination during recruitment and selection can result in an employment tribunal claim which not only costs time and money, but can also present a serious risk to reputation.

How to get it right

  • Have a clear, written recruitment process incorporating: job description, person specification, advertising, shortlisting, interviewing.
  • Ensure that all staff who will be involved in the recruitment process are trained and that the training includes the importance of non-discrimination and fair treatment.
  • Make sure that your recruitment process is not excluding good quality candidates from under-represented groups of people.
  • Keep records of all decisions made during the recruitment process, including all notes from shortlisting and interview processes.

When it’s hard to fill a vacancy

Many businesses find it hard to find skilled and talented people. If you're in this position, it may be helpful to consider ways of encouraging different groups of people to apply for your vacancies.

Women and men who aspire to work in occupations more common to the opposite sex often feel discouraged from doing so. This is because of stereotyping about women's and men's abilities and preferences, access to training, and inflexible working arrangements.

Businesses which adapt their recruitment processes and encourage applications from the widest possible pool are more likely to attract and retain the staff they need.

Way of encouraging applications from the widest possible pool include:
  • Ensuring job adverts are worded to encourage applications from both men and women. Any pictures in adverts should represent both sexes.
  • Offering pre-interview training sessions for potential employees to learn about the business and the skills required for the vacant post. Offering work experience opportunities which avoid gender stereotyping. For example, engineering and construction placements for girls as well as boys.
  • Providing induction training for women returners whose family related career breaks may mean recent work experience is limited. Induction training should be designed to fully introduce staff to the business and their role within it.

Recruitment and selection policies

All businesses, regardless of size, should have a recruitment and selection policy. An effective recruitment and selection policy is one which sets out how the business will ensure that the most suitable person for any job is selected. Your recruitment and selection policy should include a statement that the business aims to ensure that:

  • The most suitable person for any job will be selected on the basis of their relevant merits and abilities to undertake the work, and
  • No member of staff or job applicant will be unfairly treated on any grounds, including gender.


Statements typically used in effective recruitment and selection policies:

  • Vacancies will reach as wide a pool of potential applicants as possible.
  • All job descriptions will be clear and concise, and objective person specifications will be in place for every job.
  • Staff involved in recruitment and selection will be familiar with the company’s recruitment and selection policy, and be trained in non-discriminatory recruitment practice.

The recruitment and selection policy should be reviewed and monitored to ensure it remains consistent with the law and best practice.

Job descriptions

A written job description which details job purpose, tasks and responsibilities should be in place for every job.

There is a job description template in the Workplace Culture section which can be downloaded and adapted for use in your business.

Job descriptions can be used for a variety of purposes, including:

  • As a recruitment tool: they can be used as a basis for job advertisements, and should be sent to applicants with application forms.
  • As a basis for employment contracts: specific reference to job descriptions can be made in contracts of employment.
  • As a defence if discrimination is claimed: they can help demonstrate selection decisions were carried out objectively.

Person specifications

A person specification is a valuable tool used to profile the ideal person to do a particular job. The emphasis should be skills and personal attributes rather than job role and responsibilities.

A person specification should specify the criteria to be used in shortlisting and in selecting candidates to fill a vacancy. When developing a person specification, be careful to ensure no assumptions are made about ‘male’ or ‘female’ qualities.

Person specifications should be kept simple and very tightly referenced to the job. They can include information under a number of headings, such as skills, knowledge and experience.

It is essential that any experience specified relates closely to the actual requirements of the job and that you can, if challenged, justify why certain criteria are necessary. The law states that when recruiting, you must not do something that would impact more negatively on someone who has a protected characteristic than on someone who does not share that characteristic. The protected characteristics in law are as follows:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion and belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

Unless you can demonstrate that your actions or requirements are objectively justified (that is, that your actions are a proportionate way of achieving a legitimate aim), any requirements that have a disproportionately negative impact on one group over another could be viewed as indirect discrimination.


Having a requirement that ‘candidates must be over 6ft tall’, may be considered indirect sex discrimination, since considerably fewer women than men would be able to fit that criteria. An employer would have to demonstrate that this requirement could not be met by, for example, providing equipment that would allow shorter people to reach heights, or the requirement might not be justified.

Similarly, having a requirement for candidates to have ‘x number of years’ experience’, or ‘recent experience’ could potentially discriminate against women, who are more likely to take career breaks to care for children or relatives.

Businesses should consider whether appropriate experience could be gained in a non-working environment, such as the home or through voluntary work. Requirements for ‘recent experience’ would also need to be justified. Businesses should also consider whether industry practices have changed drastically in recent years, or whether new staff could be easily trained on advances in certain technology.


The Equality Act 2010 does, in limited circumstances, allow advertisements aimed specifically at one gender. One reason for this is in cases where there is a occupational requirement for an employee to be a particular gender. This might, for example, apply to caring roles, where personal care is delivered to clients of one gender or another.

Similarly, qualifications specified must be necessary to do the job, unless candidates are being recruited on the basis of future potential (for example, graduates). All of the criteria included in a person specification must be applied equally to all applicants.

There is a person specification template in the main menu that can be adapted for use within your business.

Application forms

CVs may seem a useful option. They allow applicants to tailor their application to their own preferences, but they can make shortlisting difficult. Varying degrees of information may be supplied by applicants while important details may be omitted. CVs can also include information which is not relevant to the job, or include details which may allow negative and discriminatory opinions about an applicant to be formed. For example, information about hobbies, or details of marital status, number and ages of children and so on.

Application forms, however, allow applications to be scored or ranked for shortlisting across a common set of criteria, and help ensure applicants provide consistently structured information which can be expanded on at interview. Application forms can provide evidence of why a candidate has or hasn't been selected for interview, if a claim of unfair selection is taken to tribunal.

Application forms should not include questions which may amount to unlawful discrimination, and which are unlikely to be relevant to an applicant’s ability to do a job.

Some of the questions which may lead to unlawful discrimination include those related to:

  • Gender (including family, ages of children, intentions to have children)
  • Marital status or relationships (including whether Mr, Mrs, Ms)
  • First names (identify candidates by initials only)

Include a section on unpaid work experience. This allows applicants to demonstrate relevant skills or experience gained in unpaid work, for example, in volunteer work or work in the home.

Advertising vacancies

When advertising your job vacancy, avoid using gender specific recruitment adverts (such as for ‘handyman’ or ‘waitress’), which may imply only a man or a woman is suitable for the job. This can amount to direct sex discrimination, which is unlawful. Adverts should use gender neutral terms that can be applied equally to women or men.

Also be aware of indirect sex discrimination. This can occur where an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice is applied to all staff, but can particularly disadvantage women or men.

When using images in a job advert, always ensure these do not appear to favour or suggest a particular type of person should apply for the post (for example, white, male, young).

Vacancies should be advertised as widely as possible by using a variety of media, for example:

  • Local newspapers
  • National or regional newspapers
  • Online recruitment sites (e.g. s1jobs,
  • Social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn)
  • Company website
  • Trade and professional journals
  • Magazines
  • Job centres
  • Notice boards


When the job has been advertised and applications received, a shortlist of candidates to invite for interview should be drawn up.

Taking a fair, systematic and consistent approach helps ensure that selectors do not discriminate unfairly on grounds of personal bias, whether consciously or subconsciously, when shortlisting interview candidates.

Applicants should be informed whether they have been selected for interview as quickly as possible.

Shortlisting interview candidates

  • Set criteria for selecting candidates. Criteria should be based closely on the person specification drawn up for the job
  • Have a scoring system to assist decision making
  • Examine each application and award points to each applicant, depending on how the individual criteria agreed for the job are met by each applicant
  • Involve two or more people in the shortlisting process
  • Where possible, at least two people should collaborate in deciding the shortlist of interview candidates
  • Each should draw up their own list of potential candidates, then meet and agree a final list, based on scores from their individual lists
  • Scores are totalled, and applicants with the highest scores are invited to interview

Positive action in recruitment

Where you have identified that certain groups are under-represented in a particular role within your business, you can take ‘positive action’ measures to try to address this. In recruitment, this can be done before, or at, the application stage. These steps can include encouraging people from those groups to apply or helping people with particular protected characteristics to perform to the best of their ability (for example, by giving them training or support not available to other applicants).


A design company is looking to take on a new software developer. All of its current software developers are men, so the company directors decide that they should try to target women for the position. The company contacts Women in Technology, an organisation which promotes career opportunities to women working in information technology, to advertise the vacant position. The advertisement reaches a much wider pool, and there is an increase in female applicants.

Positive action can be used in a tie break situation, where two applicants are equally well qualified but one shares a protected characteristic and the other does not. In the example above, the design company could select a female candidate over the male candidate, providing she was equally well qualified, in furtherance of the employer’s efforts to have amore representative workforce.

This is not the same as ‘positive discrimination’, which is unlawful. If, after advertising for the post, a man applied and was better qualified than a female applicant, the employer would have to offer the job to the male candidate, even though they were targeting women in an effort to redress the gender imbalance in their workforce. To offer a post to a less well qualified person because they share a protected characteristic is discriminatory.


Job interviews serve two main purposes:

  • To find out if the candidate is suitable for the job, and
  • To give the candidate information about the job and the company.

A structured interview provides a fair and consistent way to assess suitability for a post, as it is based on the interviewers asking the same questions of each candidate and assessing the quality of responses provided by each interviewee.

Deciding which questions should be included in the interview should be relatively straightforward as the knowledge and skills or competencies required for the job should already be decided, having formed the basis of any job advertisement and shortlisting process. For each question to be asked, the interviewers should decide on a score to be allocated to it, with the maximum score available being that which they would award to the ideal candidate.

Some employers may decide that certain competencies are more important to the job than others, and award a higher possible score to one question than they do another.

Every candidate should have the same opportunity to present themself effectively, to demonstrate their suitability and to ask questions of the interviewers.

Interviewing job applicants

  • Where possible, at least two people conduct interviews.
  • One to one interviews can increase the potential for discrimination to occur. It is also difficult to concentrate on questions, take notes, and relax the candidate at the same time.
  • Panel interviews, conducted by two or more people who have met and set criteria and interview questions beforehand, lessen the opportunity for discrimination.
  • Keep records of interviews.
  • Each interviewer should note every candidate’s answers to the interview questions, and notes should be kept for future reference.
  • All interview candidates are asked the same questions.
  • All candidates should be asked the same set of questions which are decided by the interviewers beforehand.
  • Where candidates are asked different questions, inconsistency and unfairness can result.
  • If an unsuccessful candidate takes a complaint to an employment tribunal, this type of questioning can be difficult to defend.
  • Where possible, both men and women should be on interview panels, and ideally have an equal number of each.
  • Ensure only questions related to the job in question are asked
  • Never ask questions about childcare arrangements and marital status. Even if such questions are asked of both men and women, this may amount to indirect sex discrimination.

During structured interviews, scores are allocated for each answer given by candidates, according to the rating system previously agreed. The successful candidate is the person who has achieved the highest overall score.

Always ensure information relating to candidates’ answers, and copies of any scoring sheets, are kept for providing feedback to unsuccessful candidates. If a complaint of unfair selection is made, such evidence may be invaluable.

Everyone involved in recruitment processes must have received appropriate training in recruitment and selection, which should include equalities aspects of recruitment and selection, and in the relevant legislation.

Creating an inclusive workplace culture


Many businesses have no contracts, handbooks or basic policies in place. When a problem occurs, they may find themselves in a difficult situation, trying to work out what to do for the best. Employment tribunals will automatically mark down any employer which has not demonstrated a willingness to provide a fair working environment.

It is good practice to have the following policies in place:

  • Equality
  • Equal pay for men and women
  • Dignity and respect at work (including bullying, harassment and victimisation)
  • Flexible working

An equality policy should include statements on the value your business places on fairness and equality, and outline how these will be put into practice.

Some examples of equality policy statements:

  • What behaviour you expect of your staff
  • What kind of behaviour is unacceptable
  • What staff can expect of you as an employer

Effective communication with staff

Problems with staff often escalate to an employment tribunal because of a lack of communication, or ineffective communication.

Staff should be given information about their rights and encouraged to speak to line managers as soon as they have a problem. Regular, short meetings with appropriate managers should be encouraged when a problem is identified. Encouraging a culture of trust will ensure that staff are confident that issues will be taken seriously.

Involving staff when changes are made to the business can help to foster a culture of openness. How you involve staff will depend on the type, size and structure of your business. This might be done through staff meetings and surveys, or through a trade union representative.

One-to-one meetings with line managers can also be a forum for discussion. Where line managers discuss an individual staff member’s progress, ensure they take a consistent approach. Discrimination and unfair treatment often arises when there has been a failure to manage situations consistently. All managers with a supervisory role should receive equality training.


There is overwhelming evidence that a long hours culture, or ‘presenteeism’, can be harmful to both staff and productivity. Many women perceive that promoted posts will require a significant increase in hours spent at the office which can be challenging for staff with caring responsibilities and acts as a disincentive to applying for a promoted post. Developing flexible working practices can help staff work smarter rather than longer.

Networking events

Many women find it difficult to access informal work networks, particularly those that are based on after-work socialising. Networking events that require participation in an activity or event stereotypically seen as male, such as golf or football, may prevent female employees attending.

By supporting female staff to participate in women-only networks you can help to build cross-company relationships, emphasise that your business values difference, and help drive cultural change.


Women in Renewable Energy Scotland (WiRES) is a professional, peer-support network for women working in the renewable energy sector. It provides a forum for women working in a range of roles and industries across the sector, and organises networking events, site visits and professional development and skills sessions for members. WiRES also runs a mentoring programme.

Staff on maternity leave

Employers are entitled to make reasonable contact with staff during maternity leave. This might be to discuss arrangements for return to work, or providing an update on significant changes to the workplace.

Women on maternity leave can, by agreement, work for up to 10 days without bringing their leave to an end or affecting their maternity pay. These are called ‘Keeping in Touch’ days. KiT days are designed to let women keep in touch with their employer and the days can be used for any work-related activity including training or attendance at meetings or conferences. Working for part of a day counts as one day’s work and businesses must be aware that any such work only takes place with the agreement of both parties.

There may be limited opportunities for promotion within your business, but opportunities for development can motivate staff to improve performance in existing jobs. Encouraging staff to keep up to date with advances in technology or new developments within an industry will benefit the organisation as well as the individuals concerned.

Paternity leave

Research shows that fewer than 10 per cent of men take more than two weeks’ paternity leave after the birth or adoption of a child. When looking at male managers, this falls to just 2 per cent. Creating a culture which is supportive of men sharing caring responsibilities will be beneficial for both male and female staff.

Retaining staff

Having recruited talented, skilled, and loyal people to work in your small business or enterprise, you will want to them to stay. It makes business sense to retain good workers for as long as possible, as it takes time, money and effort to recruit and train good staff.

Find out why people want to leave and what steps might encourage them to stay. Exit interviews enable you to find out why employees want to leave, and can highlight issues which you may need to address. Ways of improving staff retention in your business may include:

  • Providing an accurate impression of the job at the recruitment stage
  • Training line managers in effective supervision, including equality training.
  • Providing opportunities for staff to develop skills and progress, where possible.
  • Offering sideways moves if promoted posts are not feasible. This can vary experience and make work more interesting.
  • Offering flexible working, where possible.
  • Avoiding a culture of ‘presenteeism’ where people feel under pressure to work longer hours than are necessary.
  • Ensuring staff are not discriminated against.

Health and Safety

Women who require to wear PPE for their jobs often report being issued with ill-fitting equipment that has been designed for men.

Employers have a legal duty to ensure that female employees are provided with equipment that is fit for purpose, taking into account different body shape and size from their male counterparts.

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 require that the following facilities are provided as a minimum:

  • Where possible, separate toilet facilities for men and women, or, failing that, rooms with lockable doors;
  • A supply of toilet paper and, for female employees, a means of disposing of sanitary products; and
  • Separate use of changing facilities should be available to men and women in working environments where employees are required to change into and wear specialist clothing (overalls, a uniform, thermal clothing, and so on.)


The most successful businesses make the best use of their most valuable resource - people. Managing people in a way that enables and encourages them to maximise their potential benefits not just the individual employee but also business performance.

Attracting and retaining skilled workers is a key challenge for business. By developing effective training opportunities for staff, smaller businesses may find it easier to retain skilled staff, while also benefiting from increased staff efficiency, imrproved productivity and enhanced morale.

Part-time, low-paid women are the group of workers least likely to be offered training opportunities at work, but they are also the most likely to be working below their skill level. It makes good business sense to ensure that all staff have the opportunity to use and develop their skills. Training or development does not necessarily involve sending staff to an off-site event or course.

Find out more about alternatives to formal training in Progression and Promotion.

Equality training

All staff should receive equality training so that they understand their rights and responsibilities, and how equality law affects them and their colleagues. Training can be undertaken as part of an induction, a team meeting, or as a separate session. Equality training is also a good way to show your commitment to preventing discrimination and promoting fairness and equality within your business. Examples of what equality training may include are:

  • Dealing with bullying, harassment and victimisation
  • Discrimination
  • Promoting a positive and inclusive workplace culture
  • Unconscious bias
  • Promoting diversity
  • Equality law
  • Company equality policy

To learn more about how training can benefit your organisation, take the Women’s jobs, Men’s jobs test.

Pay and reward

Even in a very small business a structured pay system is easier to monitor and control, and is more likely to provide equal pay, than a system which relies on managerial discretion. Any element of discretion in deciding pay can be highly vulnerable to gender bias. Stereotypical views and attitudes to the value of different types of work and staff may influence decisions, whether consciously or not.

Employers and managers are often unaware of the impact that their decisions may have on pay equality, and on the way pay differences can effect staff morale. All staff involved in making decisions on pay and reward should receive equality training, and should understand the law on providing equal pay between men and women.

To find out more and to get practical guidance about introducing a fair pay system, head on over to our Pay and Reward section.

Flexible working

Some companies offer flexible working arrangements to their staff. There are many different types of flexible working which can relate to hours, place of work or work tasks. Some staff have flexible working contracts from the beginning of their employment, while other may require a flexible working pattern for a short period, to accommodate a change in personal circumstances.

Flexible working can be a factor in retaining loyal and reliable staff in any company, regardless of size. Introducing flexible working has little or no cost.

To find out more about different types of flexible working and how it can benefit your business head on over to our Flexible Working section.

Keeping records

Many companies keep records on different aspects of employment. Record keeping is essential to ensure your employment procedures are able to withstand scrutiny.

For example, keep all documents connected with recruitment and selection processes, such as shortlisting records, interviewers’ notes, or any other record of decision making.

It is good practice to collect gender-disaggregated data. This is information that is collected and broken down by gender, to enable comparison between men and women. This can be helpful in determining where women and men might be affected differently by workplace policies and practices. Data, broken down by gender, should be kept on the following:

  • Job applicants
  • Applicants shortlisted
  • Successful applicants
  • Pay and reward
  • Requests for flexible working
  • Sickness and absence
  • Return to work after maternity leave
  • Staff taking paternity leave
  • Grievances
  • Disciplinaries
  • Staff leaving the company
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