Introduction and practical benefits

The Charter on Equal Opportunities and Equality at Work is not mandatory; rather, companies can decide to adhere to it with regard to their specific circumstances and alongside existing programmes. So far, over 50 major Italian companies have chosen to comply with the charter's principles and the number is growing exponentially.

By virtue of this legal framework, companies can achieve numerous benefits from the implementation of equal opportunity policies, such as: (i) greater staff satisfaction and a consequent improvement in the working environment; (ii) an enhanced corporate image and reputation; (iii) opportunities in new markets that are made possible by exceeding competitors' equality standards; and (iv) optimum conditions for recognizing and attracting the most talented employees.

Thus, charter compliance is not only ethically and socially progressive, but also makes economic and competitive sense, as shown by the effects of similar measures in France and Germany.

Overview of the charter

Following a legislative path laid by France and Germany, the charter was issued in Italy on October 5 2009 and has since been signed by a considerable range of Italian companies on a voluntary basis. It is a declaration of 10 principles - rather than detailed rules - that involve every level of working organizations and aim to promote non-discrimination in company culture and human resources policies.

The charter provides a framework of commitments to guide companies in implementing effective programmes for change, encompassing everything from the hiring phase and the execution of fair company policies to periodic monitoring of employees and the promotion of career planning.

Furthermore, the charter reinforces the importance of the new regulations that were recently introduced by Legislative Decree 5/2010, which implemented EU Directive 54/2006. Legislative Decree 5/2010 also amended Legislative Decree 198/2006, known as the Equal Opportunity Code, notably in extending the definition of 'discrimination', both direct and indirect, and providing various measures to protect equality in employment.

In order to ensure equal professional and economic treatment at work, Legislative Decree 5/2010 provides for a range of fines - from €250 to €1,500 - and for the termination of illegal discriminatory conduct and the removal of its effects. Failure to comply with a labour court decision is punishable by a fine of up to €50,000 or up to six months' imprisonment.

In this regard, the charter is a useful measure for avoiding the severe penalties that may be imposed for discriminatory behaviour by an employer.

Summary of key principles

The first principle relates to the need to define and apply fair business policies, which must ensure equal dignity and treatment in the workplace at all organizational levels.

Employers must designate a position and role with responsibility for equal opportunity matters within the business environment.

Stereotypes based on gender are to be overcome through appropriate policies, adequate training and by directly promoting awareness among all staff.

Equal treatment must be implemented in human resources processes - including hiring, training and career development - in order to ensure that all decisions are taken purely on the basis of employees' skills, experience and professional potential.

Companies are recommended to place special emphasis on the importance of diversity in order to approach the issue appropriately and to ensure periodic monitoring of the impact of their policies.

Thus, the charter’s recommendations underline the importance of (i) using appropriate instruments to protect ethical values, and (ii) implementing practical measures to achieve a balance between work time and personal time to encourage flexible working practices, particularly for maternity leave.

Companies are advised to share their equal opportunity projects with all staff, promote their efforts in the field of non-discrimination and communicate the positive results and improvements that they achieve.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.