HR professionals should “get over the idea that positive discrimination is wrong” and use the provisions in the Equality Act to favour disadvantaged groups, according to a leading professor of HR.

Mike Noon, professor of HR management at the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity at Queen Mary University London, said that employers needed to recognise that there is a business case for positive discrimination – and that the distinction between this and "positive action" was a relatively unimportant one.

He urged HR professionals to use “groundbreaking” inclusion methods contained in section 159 of the Equality Act - which will become law this April - giving employers the option to choose a candidate from an under-represented group when the candidates are of equal merit.

“It’s called the tie-break option,” he said. “Employers can use characteristics protected under the law, for example race, gender and disability, to make the decision between equal candidates - that’s positive discrimination.”

He said that in terms of the law such methods were “probably defined as positive action” because they are permissive rather than active. “But when an employer enacts it, it must be positive discrimination, it can’t be anything else. That’s important because we need to get over this idea that positive discrimination is wrong,” he said.

Noon explained that the perception that positive discrimination is wrong was based on the view that it’s just about quotas. “But the term is used for a whole range of options and the tie break is one of them,” he said.

Employers have already made a strong business case for increased diversity, he said, and there are further business benefits to be gained from boosting the inclusion of disadvantaged groups.

“If an organisation can make a business case for diversity, then methods such as the tie-break system outlined in the Equality Act are valuable inclusion tools,” said Noon.

“This is because they allow people to use diversity to make decisions, while retaining meritocratic principles. So, there is a business case for this form of positive discrimination.”

He said that section 159 of the act would give employers “a legal method to promote inclusion, which they can choose to use because it’s permissive not mandatory”.

But he added that the function needed to test out the new provisions to drive diversity and inclusion forward and stimulate more debate.