Dealing with workplace discrimination in the UK: What characteristics are protected?

Under the Equality Act 2010, it is illegal to discriminate against someone in the workplace if they have one of the nine ‘protected characteristics’. 

In this article we explain what the protected characteristics are, how discrimination can manifest itself, and how employees can deal with discrimination in the workplace.

Protected Characteristics in the UK

In the UK, it is against the law to discriminate against someone at work on the basis of any of the protected characteristics outlined below: 

  • Age 

This can apply to a particular age or a range of ages and both young and old people can be discriminated against because of their age.

  • Disability 

This can be a physical or mental impairment which has a long-term adverse affect on a person’s ability to carry out everyday tasks. Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments at work for people with a disability.

  • Gender Reassignment 

You do not need to have undergone any specific treatment or surgery to change from your birth sex to your preferred gender to be protected from gender reassignment discrimination.

  • Marriage and Civil Partnership 

Married men and women or same-sex spouses cannot be treated any differently to their single counterparts. Same-sex civil partners must also not be treated less favourably than married couples (apart from in the exceptional circumstances listed in the Equality Act).

  • Pregnancy and Maternity

A woman cannot be discriminated against while she is pregnant or in the maternity period after giving birth. This includes treating her less favourably because she is breastfeeding.

  • Race 

Race refers to a group of people defined by their race, colour, nationality or their ethnic or national origins.

  • Religion or Belief

This covers anyone with a profound religious or philosophical belief which affects their way of life or view of the world. It can include organised religions such as Judaism or Islam, or a sect such as Scientology. It also covers a lack of belief, so atheists are also protected from discrimination. The recent case of Conisbee v Crossley Farms established that vegetarians would not enjoy religious discrimination protection because the reasons for being a vegetarian vary so widely, but the door was left open for so-called ‘ethical vegans’ to be covered.

  • Sex

Employers cannot treat a woman or man any differently to someone of the opposite sex. The treatment does not have to be intentional to be unlawful. The adverse treatment could be an isolated incident or because of company policy. 

  • Sexual Orientation

This provides protection for someone who is sexually attracted to their own sex, both sexes, or the opposite sex.

Types of discrimination

Discrimination can be either direct or indirect. Direct discrimination means treating someone with a protected characteristic less favourably than others, while indirect discrimination involves having rules or policies that apply to everyone, but put someone with a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage. In some circumstances it can be legal to have specific rules or arrangements in place, but the employer would have to objectively justify them.

You are also protected from discrimination if you are associated with someone who has a protected characteristic, for example, a family member or friend, or you have complained about discrimination or supported someone else’s claim.

What you can do

If you have faced discrimination at work because of your protected characteristic you have a number of options open to you. 

Your first port of call would be to complain to your manager or follow your organisation’s grievance procedure. If this does not resolve the problem, you could try mediation which involves sitting down with your employer and a specially trained independent mediator who will help you talk through your issues to try to reach some sort of resolution.

If this does not work, you may need to resort to taking your case to an employment tribunal. You usually have to make a claim to the tribunal within three months of the problem happening and you must tell the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service that you plan to make a claim to the tribunal. This will offer you the chance to try and settle the dispute without going to court by using its free ‘early conciliation’ service.

For further information on workplace discrimination or advice on any other employment law matter, please contact the employment team on 01732 770660 or by [email protected]. Warners Solicitors has offices in Sevenoaks and Tonbridge, Kent.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.

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