As an employment lawyer who represents businesses, I may not be the obvious choice to criticise a large organisation’s HR practices.
Unfortunately, I cannot help myself when it comes to the BBC pay debacle. Here are my earlier thoughts on pay transparency when the news broke; however, the issues don’t end there.
My continued interest is not just down to the many excellent water cooler topics (my favourite is still “on what planet is Jeremy Vine worth two Ken Bruces?”), but also because the BBC pay issue flags up matters of legitimate concern.
Yet in fairness, while the focus both on and offline remains very much on the BBC, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the broadcaster is alone in having questionable approaches to pay and promotions.
That said, what may be all but unique to the BBC is the clarity of its commitment to resolve the problem, and the challenging timescale set for doing so.
Here’s the problem though - it almost certainly won’t work.
Let’s assume it is accepted that the BBC pay disclosures reveal a bias towards men (in fact, the BBC acknowledges this).
I think it’s also safe to assume this is not a situation that has happened overnight.
If we go back to the ‘70s, the appointment of Angela Rippon as one of the first female journalists to regularly present the BBC national TV news was something very much against the normal run of play.
I can’t imagine that equal opportunities - including pay parity between men and women - was of great concern to the BBC back then. Accordingly the current position is not a temporary lapse. This has being going on for years.
Despite the many years spent digging the pay gap-shaped hole, the BBC has undertaken to sort this out by 2020, and is already facing calls from many respected female broadcasters to act far quicker.
For many of us, 2020 seems a long time in the future, but the calendar takes a different view. It will be with us in less than 2½ years. This is the timescale for the BBC to make sure 50% of staff will be female - including in senior positions - and that there will be demonstrable gender pay equality.
How is the broadcaster going to achieve this?
If the BBC is to meet its target by 2020, presumably this means the vast majority of new posts, promotions and pay rises will go to female candidates. But how does the BBC know the majority of best candidates will not only be female, but that the numbers of successful women will be sufficient to make the 2020 maths work?
It is one thing eliminating the bias in pay and recruitment going forward - it is quite another to guarantee percentages in a couple of years’ time. It looks an awful lot like positive discrimination to me.
If faced with questions about why a male colleague failed to secure a new job or was confronted with a reduction in his pay-packet, the response “because you’re a man” is never going to be the answer: positive discrimination on the basis of gender remains unlawful, however well intentioned.
Accordingly, while it is commendable the BBC is looking to take radical steps to right wrongs - picking a date in the near future to achieve this has all the appearance of panic.
I fear the organisation is acting on advice that has more to do with PR than HR, and is in danger of digging another hole – this time marked common-or-garden variety direct discrimination.
There is another problem.
The news media has latched onto the gender bias issue: worth having another look at the now infamous list of BBC staff paid over £150K.
How comfortable are we that the problem begins and ends with gender?
For example, the list fails to reflect the UK demographics on race. Is the BBC offering to also have a proportionate number of staff on the rich list that properly reflects ethnic diversity?
If the BBC is seeking to rectify this (and I am sure it is) perhaps the organisation should do itself a favour and focus less on trying to deflect bad publicity. In particular I don’t think it is advisable to rush out another news release with another arbitrary date.
Whatever way you look at it, it seems clear the BBC pay story has legs.
Stay tuned for the latest news.
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