A recent investigation into the business practices of Sports Direct and its owner Mike Ashley has thrown up some interesting and controversial issues concerning equality and fair treatment in the workplace.

Luke Primarolo from the Unite union told MPs at a recent hearing that, “In the warehouse there is a culture of fear.” he went on to add “People are scared because they are working under a system where they know they could lose their employment at any moment“.

CEO of the National Centre for Diversity, Solat Chaudhry, commented “It is simply unacceptable for employees of any organisation to be operating under a culture of fear. This is not the way to get the most out people.” Solat also added “There is a proven link between good equality, diversity and inclusion practices, and improved employee engagement, performance and productivity. With this in mind I struggle to see why Sports Direct have allowed such poor practices.

Whilst HMRC is investigating the firm over allegations they were paying Derbyshire warehouse staff below the minimum wage, the BBC reports that an internal investigation into the firm was launched 6 months ago, Mike Ashley told MPs that they discovered “some issues” with working practices at the warehouse, which he had “hopefully” addressed.

Mr Chaudhry noted that “As a leader of such a large organisation I recognise that it is difficult to know absolutely everything that is happening across the whole organisation. However, some of the allegations and reports that have come to light, such as women giving birth in the toilets; due to the fear of taking a sick day are truly shocking. It is the responsibility of the leaders of an organisation to ensure that they are not ignorant of this culture within their organisation, but also to ensure that changes and improvements are made as quickly as possible. These kind of practices are akin to an organisation playing chicken across the M1 motorway during peak hours

Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of Unite the Union, disclosed that Sports Direct had agreed with HMRC to give some backdated compensation to warehouse employees — but not its thousands of temporary workers. This throws up further questions and concerns over the equality and equal pay practices being upheld by Sports Direct.

When asked about the difficulties in embedding good equality, diversity and inclusion practices in large organisations, Mr Chaudhry commented “The key to ensuring good practices are embedded through the organisation, whatever the size, is educating your leaders and staff. If you get this right, your staff and leaders will be motivated, engaged and willing to ensure that the necessary changes are not only made but are also upheld by everyone in the organisation.

The Financial Times has reported Mike Ashley confirming that he had already changed certain working practices as a result of the internal investigation, but it remains to be seen as to whether those changes go far enough to secure the knowledge that all staff are treated fairly.