Discrimination Law | Introduction to discrimination laws

Discrimination usually consists of one or more of the following, known as "protected characteristics":

1. People who are treated differently based upon their sex, race, (colour, nationality, ethnic or national origins), marital status (including civil partnerships), religion, (this applied from 2nd December 2003), sexual orientation (this applied from 1st December 2003), age (this applied from 1st October 2006) or because they have undergone gender reassignment (transsexuals). This covers harassment based on any of the above.

With regard to discrimination based on religion or religious beliefs, employers will now need to accommodate a wide variety of religious and cultural needs of workers. This may include, for example, establishing a prayer room in the workplace and being flexible about employees taking time off for different religious holidays.

Discrimination can occur based on a perception of a person's religion or beliefs, even if those perceptions were wrong and also extend to discrimination based on a person's association with someone else who has a particular religion or belief. It also protects those with a lack of religion.

There is no protection against discrimination based on political beliefs or philosophical beliefs, which are not akin to religious beliefs.

Discrimination based on sexual orientation applies to sexual orientation for persons of the same sex, different sex or both sexes, but does not apply to sexual practices or preferences. Discrimination can occur based on a perception of a person's sexual orientation, even if that perception is wrong and also extends to discrimination based on a person's association with someone else who has a particular sexual orientation.

Discrimination based on age is not unlawful if it can be justified to show it is necessary to meet a legitimate aim.

2. Employees who are paid different rates of pay despite doing similar work, because of their sex.

3. Disabled people who receive less favourable treatment than their work colleagues who are not disabled. This now includes those visually impaired, see Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 says that an employer should not discriminate against a person on the grounds of their disability. To prevent discrimination, an employer will be expected to make adjustments to the workplace and working conditions. So that a disabled person is not placed at a "substantial disadvantage".

However, this Act does not apply to an employer who employs less than 15 workers.

The Act describes a disabled person as anyone who has a "physical or mental impairment", which is long-term or substantial and makes them unable to carry out normal day to day activities and has more than a minor or trivial effect and lasts or is likely to last at least 12 months.

This is a very wide definition and could include new categories of disability. Employers will have to be careful that their recruitment, training and dismissal procedures, etc. do not treat disabled people unfairly. For example, it is unlawful to ask about a candidate's health before offering them a job. Unless it is to help you decide if you need to make reasonable adjustments or whether an applicant can carry out a function essential to the job, or to monitor diversity, etc. It is ok to ask health-related questions once a person has passed the interview.

Discrimination can be alleged if the person has been treated unfavourably for a reason related to their disability.

Disability discrimination can also occur if a person who is linked to a disabled person is discriminated against. For example a carer or parent of a disabled person - if that carer suffers discrimination it is linked to the disabled person, so the carer can bring a claim for discrimination on their own behalf. This means that employers need to take account of employees' home situations and requests related to them, such as requests for flexible working.

Discrimination based on disability will be unlawful unless it can be shown that it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

4. Members of trade unions who are treated less favourably than non-union members. However, this can also work in reverse, if non-union workers receive less favourable treatment.

5. Discrimination based on pregnancy and maternity.

6. Discrimination against someone because they associate with a person who possesses a protected characteristic. The Equality Act 2010 extended this to cover age, disability, gender reassignment and sex. It already applied to race, religion or belief and sexual orientation.

7. Discrimination against someone because others think they have a particular protected characteristic. This already applied to race, religion or belief and sexual orientation. But the Equality Act 2010 extended this to cover disability, gender reassignment and sex.

8. Indirect discrimination, this can occur if an employer has a rule or policy that applies to everyone, but has the effect that it is disadvantageous to a particular protected characteristic. Indirect discrimination applies to age, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnerships, disability and gender reassignment. 

There is no minimum service requirement to bring a claim based on discrimination. A claim for discrimination can be made regardless of whether the complainant is an employee. For example, a person who has been interviewed, but not selected for the job because of race, gender or disability might bring a claim for discrimination based on the firm's selection procedure.

An employer may lawfully discriminate in selecting employees for a job where being a member of a particular race, sex, sexual orientation, religion or age group is a genuine occupational qualification for the job.

Discrimination legislation applies throughout the employment relationship, during the recruitment process, in the workplace and following the dismissal.

Direct Discrimination - what is direct discrimination?

Employment Law