Protected Characteristics: A Guide for Employers

protected characteristics


In the UK, it is unlawful to treat someone unfairly at work due to protected characteristics, as specified under the Equality Act 2010.

The protected characteristics which are safeguarded against discrimination under the Act include age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

Discrimination based on any of these characteristics is unlawful, and individuals are entitled to protection whether they are employees, job applicants, or in any other capacity related to employment.

Employers have a duty to understand and respect these characteristics to create an inclusive environment that upholds the principles of equality and diversity.

Discrimination in the workplace, even if unintentional, can have serious and costly consequences for an organisation. Allegations of unlawful conduct may lead to legal proceedings, not to mention a damaged reputation and employer brand.

It can also create significant conflict in the workplace or, at the very least, foster a negative working environment in which reduced morale can adversely impact performance and productivity.

The following guide for employers, line managers and HR personnel outlines the law on discrimination in the workplace and how this affords both job applicants and workers statutory protection from unfair treatment.

We also examine the limited circumstances in which discrimination can be construed as lawful, and the ways in which employers can reduce the risk of unlawful conduct at work.


Section A: What Are Protected Characteristics?


Protected characteristics are specific attributes or traits that form part of a person’s identity that are legally safeguarded against unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.


1. Equality Act 2010


The Equality Act 2010 is the primary legislation prohibiting unlawful discrimination in the UK. The key provisions of the Equality Act 2010 include:


a. Prohibiting direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, and victimisation.

b. Ensuring equal pay and conditions for men and women performing equal work.

c. Requiring reasonable adjustments for disabled individuals to ensure they are not disadvantaged.

d. Protecting against associative and perceptive discrimination (i.e., discrimination due to association with a person with a protected characteristic or perception that a person has a protected characteristic).


The Act ensures that individuals possessing protected characteristics, or those who are associated with anyone with these characteristics, are treated fairly and equally, without facing prejudice or unjust treatment in a number of environments, including the workplace, in education, when accessing public services, when buying goods and services and when buying or renting property.

Failure to meet these provisions can result in legal action. For employers, this can mean costly tribunal claims for unlawful discrimination.


2. List of the 9 Protected Characteristics under the Equality Act 2010


The 2010 Act sets out nine different protected characteristics:


a. Age: age discrimination is where a person is treated unfairly because of their age or because they’re part of a particular age group or age range.

b. Disability: disability discrimination is where a person is treated unfairly for a reason connected with any physical or mental impairment that’s having a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to do normal day-to-day activities.

c. Gender reassignment: discrimination by reason of gender reassignment is where a person is treated unfairly because they’re transgender, including those who want to reassign their sex from their birth sex to their preferred sex or actually do this by changing physical or other characteristics. Gender reassignment is a personal, not a medical process, where an individual doesn’t have to be under medical supervision or undergo medical treatment to be afforded protection as a transgender person.

d. Marriage or civil partnership: discrimination by reason of marriage or civil partnership is where someone is treated unfairly because they’re married, provided this is a union recognised as a marriage under UK law, even if they didn’t marry in the UK, or in a registered civil partnership, including same-sex partnerships registered outside the UK.

e. Pregnancy or maternity: discrimination by reason of pregnancy or maternity is where someone is treated unfairly because either they’re pregnant, have a pregnancy-related illness, or they’ve recently given birth and are on maternity leave.

f. Race: race discrimination is where someone is treated unfairly because of their colour, nationality, or ethnic or national origins. People who share these characteristics are part of the same racial group, although someone can be part of several racial groups.

g. Religion or belief: discrimination by reason of religion or belief is where someone is treated unfairly because they follow a particular faith or hold a certain belief, where belief encompasses both religious or philosophical beliefs, and includes a lack of belief.

h. Sex: sex discrimination is where someone is treated unfairly because they’re either male or female, regardless of any other protected characteristic that they may possess.

i. Sexual orientation: discrimination by reason of sexual orientation is where someone is treated unfairly because they’re either gay, lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual.


3. Who is protected under the Equality Act?


You are protected from unlawful discrimination if you have a protected characteristic, or are associated with someone who has a protected characteristic, or if you have complained about discrimination or supported someone else’s claim.

The Equality Act 2010 also protects individuals from discrimination based on the perception that they have one or more of the following protected characteristics:


a. Age
b. Disability
c. Gender reassignment
d. Race
e. Religion or belief
f. Sex
g. Sexual orientation


Marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity are not covered by perceptive discrimination, as these characteristics are inherently factual.


Section B: Legal Obligations for Employers


Under the Equality Act 2010, employers in the UK have a legal duty to ensure that their workplace is free from discrimination and harassment. For employers, this demands an understanding of the protected characteristics and measures to ensure fair and equal treatment of employees and to prevent unlawful discrimination in the workplace.


1. Types of Discrimination


There are various different types of discrimination that commonly arise in the workplace:


a. Direct Discrimination

Direct discrimination in the workplace is where an employer treats an employee less favourably because they possess a protected characteristic. An example of direct discrimination could be where a female member of staff is passed over for promotion, but her less-experienced male co-worker is offered the job, or where a pregnant worker or worker on maternity leave is selected for redundancy. Direct discrimination can also include treating someone unfairly because they’re thought to possess a protected characteristic (discrimination by perception), even if they don’t, or because the employee is associated with someone who possesses a protected characteristic (discrimination by association).


b. Indirect Discrimination

Indirect discrimination in the workplace is where the application of a provision, criterion or practice inadvertently puts or would put those employees who possess a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage when compared with others who don’t share that characteristic. It’s essentially where an employer treats someone the same as everyone else, but this still has a negative effect on them. For example, a job advert for a salesperson that requires all applicants to have 10 years of experience in retail could be discriminating indirectly based on age. This is because the advert excludes young people who may still have the skills and qualifications needed. Equally, a requirement that all employees work certain shift patterns could discriminate against someone taking medication for a mental health disorder, which means they’re too tired to work late shifts.


c. Harassment and Victimisation

Harassment in the workplace is where someone is subjected to unwanted conduct that’s connected to a protected characteristic that either violates their dignity or creates an offensive working environment, while victimisation is where a person is subjected to a detriment because they’ve complained about discrimination or harassment or supported someone else’s claim at work. For example, if a person is subjected to racist, sexist or homophobic remarks, this could amount to harassment. Equally, if someone is refused a promotion or other opportunities at work because they’ve supported a colleague’s complaint about discriminatory comments or conduct, this could amount to victimisation.


2. Responsibilities of Employers to Prevent Discrimination


Employers must take reasonable steps to reduce the risk of all types of discrimination in the workplace. This includes direct discrimination, harassment and victimisation, especially as employers can potentially be held to be vicariously liable for the unlawful conduct of other members of staff. It also includes any indirect discrimination arising out of the rules and arrangements implemented by the employer.


a. Developing and Implementing Anti-Discrimination Policies

Employers must create comprehensive anti-discrimination policies that are clearly communicated to all employees. These policies should outline the organisation’s commitment to equality and detail the procedures for handling complaints of discrimination.


b. Providing Training and Education

Regular training sessions for all staff members, including management, are essential to raise awareness about protected characteristics and the importance of non-discriminatory behaviour. Training should cover the legal aspects of the Equality Act 2010, examples of discriminatory practices, and the consequences of such behaviour.


c. Promoting an Inclusive Culture

Employers should actively promote a culture of inclusion and respect within the workplace. This can be achieved through diversity initiatives, employee resource groups, and by encouraging open dialogue about diversity and inclusion issues.


d. Making Reasonable Adjustments

Employers are also under a statutory duty to make reasonable adjustments to minimise any disadvantage suffered by employees who are protected under the Act. This could include modifying workstations, providing assistive technologies, or adjusting work arrangements.

Any failure to make reasonable adjustments can be classed as unlawful discrimination by reason of disability.


e. Handling Complaints and Grievances

A clear and transparent process for handling complaints and grievances related to discrimination must be established. Employers should ensure that all complaints are taken seriously, investigated thoroughly, and resolved promptly.


f. Monitoring and Reviewing Practices

Regular monitoring and review of workplace practices and policies are crucial to ensure ongoing compliance with the Equality Act 2010. Employers should collect and analyse data on workforce diversity, identify any potential areas of discrimination, and take corrective actions as needed.


g. Ensuring Fair Recruitment Practices

Recruitment and selection processes should be fair, objective, and free from bias. Job advertisements, interviews, and selection criteria should focus on the candidate’s abilities and qualifications, not on their protected characteristics.


3. How to Manage Discrimination Risks


There are a number of different ways in which employers can help to ensure that all employees are treated fairly throughout the lifecycle of their employment, including:


a. Putting in place a ‘dignity at work’ policy

A written workplace policy will help to set out the stance taken by the employer in relation to discrimination, harassment and victimisation. The policy should explain the different types of discrimination and how these can arise, including detailed examples of each. It should essentially let employees know what’s regarded as acceptable conduct and what’s expected of them at work and set out the procedure for dealing with any complaints of discriminatory conduct.


b. Reviewing all workplace policies and procedures

It is good practice to ensure that all workplace policies promote inclusion and that the application of any provision, criterion or practice will not inadvertently put those with protected characteristics at an unfair disadvantage. This should include recruitment policies and the way in which vacancies are advertised.


c. Providing equality and diversity training

Those responsible for making hiring, firing and other management decisions fully understand the different types of discrimination and are trained in these areas of risk. It’s also important for all members of staff to understand the impact and consequences of their own unlawful conduct.


d. Implementing adequate grievance and disciplinary procedures

Employers must ensure that adequate procedures are in place to deal with any allegations of unfair treatment by reason of protected characteristics and, where appropriate, to discipline those responsible. Dealing with any complaints in a full, fair and prompt manner will provide employers with an opportunity to resolve the matter without recourse to legal proceedings. This will also help to restore positive working relationships and protect the employer brand.


4. Consequences of Discrimination


Employment law protects an employee against unlawful discrimination in the workplace in relation to various key areas of employment, including recruitment, pay and benefits, other terms and conditions, training and promotion, performance management, redundancy and dismissal.

If an individual is treated unfairly in relation to any one of these areas of employment, either directly or indirectly, the employer may find themselves facing a tribunal claim for unlawful discrimination. The right not to be discriminated against in the workplace is a right that arises even prior to employment. Equally, any decision to dismiss an employee by reason of a protected characteristic could be classed as automatically unfair. This means that the employee would not need 2 years’ qualifying service to be eligible to claim unfair dismissal.

It’s also important to bear in mind — especially in the context of potential claims for harassment and victimisation — that an employer can be held accountable not only for its own discriminatory conduct, but can be held vicariously liable for the unlawful conduct of its employees. This is because, under the provisions of the 2010 Act, anything done by another person in the course of their employment must be treated as done by the employer.


5. Is Discrimination in the Workplace ever Lawful?


In rare cases, an employer may be able to prove an applicant needs a certain protected characteristic to do a particular job. This is known as an ‘occupational requirement’. However, the protected characteristic must be essential for, and relate to, the main tasks of the job, and the employer must be able to show a good business reason for this. For example, an employer may be able to justify an upper age limit on a job that requires high levels of fitness and agility, or they may be able to justify employing only women in a medical centre for Muslim women.

In some cases, indirect discrimination can be considered lawful, but only where the employer can prove that the application of a provision, criterion or practice is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. This is known as ‘objective justification’, where legitimate aims can include the need to run and provide an efficient service, and the economic and operational requirements of the business in question. A legitimate aim can also include the health and safety of an individual or others at work, for example, banning necklaces in a workplace with heavy machinery might indirectly discriminate against anyone who wears a necklace to show their faith, but there’s a very good health and safety reason for the rule.


6. Positive Discrimination in the Workplace


It’s unlawful to positively discriminate in the workplace, although employers are allowed to take positive action in certain scenarios. For example, an employer can take positive action to support employees, or prospective employees, from a particular ethnicity or age group, provided they can show the group is at a disadvantage or underrepresented in the workforce.

In these circumstances, provided any positive action will not discriminate against others, the employer can take proportionate steps to reduce or remove any barriers or disadvantages, or provide support and training, to increase the participation of those from a protected group.


Section C: Creating an Inclusive Workplace


An inclusive workplace embraces diversity, encourages collaboration, and drives innovation. For employers, this means implementing strategies that promote diversity and inclusion, which in turn can lead to significant business benefits and higher employee satisfaction.

Creating an inclusive workplace is not just about complying with legal obligations; it is about fostering an environment where every employee feels valued, respected, and empowered to contribute to their fullest potential.


1. Benefits of an Inclusive Workplace


a. Enhanced Business Performance

Diverse teams bring different perspectives and ideas, which can lead to more innovative solutions and better decision-making. Inclusive workplaces are more agile and better equipped to respond to changing market conditions, driving business success.


b. Attracting and Retaining Talent

An inclusive workplace is attractive to a wider talent pool. Employees are more likely to join and stay with an organisation that values diversity and promotes equal opportunities. This reduces turnover and the costs associated with recruitment and training.


c. Improved Employee Satisfaction and Engagement

Employees who feel included and valued are more likely to be satisfied with their job and engaged in their work. High levels of engagement are linked to increased productivity, better customer service, and lower absenteeism.


d. Stronger Employer Brand

Organisations known for their commitment to diversity and inclusion build a positive reputation, both internally and externally. This can enhance the company’s brand, making it more attractive to customers, investors, and partners who value corporate social responsibility.


e. Legal and Ethical Compliance

By promoting diversity and inclusion, employers reduce the risk of discrimination claims and ensure compliance with legal requirements. This fosters a fair and respectful workplace and upholds the organisation’s ethical standards.


2. Strategies for Promoting Diversity and Inclusion


Creating an inclusive workplace is an ongoing process that requires commitment, resources, and a willingness to embrace change through strategies such as:


a. Leadership Commitment

Inclusion starts at the top. Leaders should demonstrate a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion by setting clear goals, allocating resources, and regularly communicating the importance of these values to the entire organisation.


b. Developing Inclusive Policies

Establish clear, comprehensive policies that support diversity and inclusion. These should cover areas such as recruitment, promotion, flexible working, and anti-discrimination measures. Policies should be regularly reviewed and updated to reflect best practices.


c. Diverse Recruitment Practices

Implement recruitment strategies that attract a diverse pool of candidates. This can include advertising in diverse publications, using inclusive language in job descriptions, and employing diverse interview panels. Consider using blind recruitment techniques to minimise unconscious bias.


d. Providing Diversity Training

Regular training sessions for all employees, including leadership, can help increase awareness and understanding of diversity and inclusion. Training should cover unconscious bias, cultural competency, and the benefits of a diverse workforce.


e. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

Support the formation of ERGs or affinity groups. These groups can provide a platform for employees to connect, share experiences, and offer support. They also serve as a valuable resource for the organisation to gain insights into the needs and concerns of diverse employee groups.


f. Inclusive Communication

Ensure that all communication, both internal and external, is inclusive and respectful. Use language that is gender-neutral and culturally sensitive. Encourage open dialogue and feedback from employees about diversity and inclusion issues.


g. Flexible Working Arrangements

Offer flexible working options to accommodate diverse needs. This can include remote working, flexible hours, part-time roles, and job-sharing arrangements. Flexible working can help attract and retain a diverse workforce.


h. Mentorship and Sponsorship Programs

Establish mentorship and sponsorship programs to support the career development of underrepresented groups. These programs can help employees build networks, gain visibility, and access opportunities for advancement.


Section D: Implementing Anti-Discrimination Policies


Anti-discrimination policies help create a fair and inclusive workplace where all employees feel respected and valued. Developing and enforcing effective anti-discrimination policies involves a systematic approach to ensure that discrimination is prevented, addressed promptly, and appropriately handled when it occurs, through the following steps:


Step 1: Assess the Current Environment

Begin by evaluating the existing workplace culture and identifying areas where discrimination may occur. This can involve employee surveys, focus groups, and reviewing past incidents to understand the specific needs of your organisation.


Step 2: Develop a Comprehensive Policy

Create a detailed anti-discrimination policy that clearly defines discrimination and outlines the protected characteristics as per the Equality Act 2010. The policy should cover all forms of discrimination, including direct, indirect, harassment, and victimisation.


Step 3: Consult Stakeholders

Involve key stakeholders, including HR professionals, legal advisors, and employee representatives, in the development of the policy. Their input can help ensure the policy is comprehensive, practical, and aligned with best practices.


Step 4: Communicate the Policy

Ensure that all employees are aware of the anti-discrimination policy. Communicate it through multiple channels such as employee handbooks, the company intranet, training sessions, and regular meetings. Make sure the policy is easily accessible to all employees.


Step 5: Training and Education

Provide regular training for all employees, including management, to ensure they understand the policy and their responsibilities. Training should cover recognising and addressing discrimination, understanding unconscious bias, and promoting an inclusive culture.


Step 6: Establish Clear Reporting Procedures

Set up straightforward and confidential procedures for reporting discrimination. Employees should feel safe and supported when reporting incidents. Clearly outline the steps for filing a complaint and the process that will follow.


Step 7: Investigate Complaints Promptly and Fairly

Develop a process for investigating complaints that is timely, impartial, and thorough. Ensure that investigators are trained and unbiased. Maintain confidentiality throughout the investigation to protect all parties involved.


Step 8: Take Appropriate Action

Based on the findings of the investigation, take appropriate action to address the issue. This may include disciplinary measures against those who have committed discriminatory acts, as well as measures to support affected employees.


Step 9: Monitor and Review

Regularly review the effectiveness of the anti-discrimination policy and procedures. Gather feedback from employees and use it to make improvements. Stay informed about changes in legislation and best practices to ensure the policy remains up-to-date.


Step 10: Foster a Culture of Inclusion

Beyond policies and procedures, actively promote a culture that values diversity and inclusion. Encourage open dialogue, support diversity initiatives, and recognise the contributions of all employees.


Section E: Handling Discrimination Complaints and Grievances


Employers in the UK are required by law to have grievance and disciplinary policies in place to ensure fair treatment of employees and effective management of workplace disputes. Transparent and fair processes also ensure that employees feel safe and supported when raising concerns.


1. Legal Requirements for Grievance and Disciplinary Policies


The Employment Rights Act 1996 mandates that employers provide employees with a written statement of employment particulars, which must include information about grievance procedures so that employees are aware of how to raise concerns and complaints.

Additionally, the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures, while not legally binding, serves as a benchmark for reasonable behaviour in handling these issues. Employment tribunals take the ACAS Code into account when considering relevant cases and can adjust awards if either party unreasonably fails to follow it.

Regarding disciplinary procedures, the Employment Rights Act 1996 requires employers to include information about these procedures in the written statement of employment particulars. The ACAS Code of Practice also provides principles for handling disciplinary issues, emphasising the importance of fairness, consistency, and transparency in disciplinary actions. This guidance helps employers maintain a fair and legally compliant approach to managing employee conduct and performance.


2. How to Deal with Discrimination Complaints


Taking a structured approach to managing discrimination complaints not only ensures compliance with legal standards, it also promotes a culture of fairness and trust within the organisation.


a. Develop a Clear Policy
Creating a comprehensive grievance policy is essential for effectively handling discrimination complaints. This policy should clearly outline the procedures for reporting and managing such complaints, ensuring it is easily accessible to all employees. Communicating this policy is equally important. It should be clearly conveyed to all employees through handbooks, the company intranet, and regular training sessions, making sure everyone understands the process and their rights.


b. Encourage Reporting
To foster an environment where employees feel comfortable reporting discrimination, it is crucial to create a safe and supportive atmosphere. Employees should be encouraged to report any incidents of discrimination without fear of retaliation. Additionally, providing options for anonymous reporting can help protect the identity of the complainant, making them more likely to come forward with their concerns.


c. Initial Reporting
It is important to identify and train specific individuals within the organisation, such as HR personnel, to act as designated contacts for receiving complaints. Offering multiple channels for reporting, such as in-person meetings, email, hotlines, or online forms, ensures that employees have various options to voice their concerns, making the reporting process more accessible.


d. Acknowledge Receipt
Upon receiving a complaint, it is essential to acknowledge it promptly. This acknowledgement should confirm that a thorough and impartial investigation will follow. Additionally, it is important to inform the complainant about the next steps, expected timelines, and their rights during the process, keeping them informed and reassured throughout.


e. Conduct a Fair Investigation
Assigning impartial and trained investigators to handle the case is crucial to ensure fairness. These investigators should have no conflicts of interest. Gathering all relevant information, including witness statements, documents, and any other pertinent evidence, is essential for a thorough investigation. Maintaining confidentiality throughout the process protects the privacy of all parties involved and ensures a fair and unbiased investigation.


f. Interim Measures
If necessary, interim measures should be implemented to protect the complainant from further discrimination or retaliation while the investigation is ongoing. These measures might include temporary changes in work assignments, schedules, or other accommodations to ensure the complainant’s safety and comfort during the investigation.


g. Evaluation and Decision
Evaluating all evidence objectively and fairly is crucial for making informed decisions. Decisions should be based on facts and in accordance with company policies and legal standards. Documenting the findings and conclusions of the investigation thoroughly and transparently is also important to maintain accountability and transparency.


h. Communicate the Outcome
Communicating the outcome of the investigation to both the complainant and the accused is essential. This communication should be clear and respectful, ensuring both parties understand the findings and the reasons behind the decisions. If discrimination is found, it is important to explain the actions that will be taken to address the issue and prevent future occurrences.


i. Take Appropriate Action
If the complaint is substantiated, appropriate disciplinary actions should be implemented. These actions could range from warnings to termination, depending on the severity of the misconduct. Additionally, providing support to the complainant, such as counselling services or additional measures to ensure their comfort and safety at work, is crucial for their well-being.


j. Review and Improve
Regularly reviewing and updating the grievance policy and procedures based on feedback and lessons learned from past cases is essential for continuous improvement. Using data and insights from complaints to identify trends and areas for improvement in workplace practices and culture helps create a more inclusive and fair environment for all employees.


Section F: Anti-Discrimination Training and Awareness


Regular training and awareness initiatives are fundamental to creating a workplace that is free from discrimination and embraces diversity, ensuring that all employees, including management, are well-informed about anti-discrimination laws, company policies, and best practices for fostering an inclusive environment.


1. Importance of Regular Training for Staff and Management


Regular training helps employees and management understand their legal responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010 and other relevant legislation. This knowledge is crucial for preventing discriminatory practices and ensuring compliance with the law.

Training also fosters an inclusive culture by educating employees about the value of diversity and the benefits of an inclusive workplace. It encourages respectful behaviour and helps build a supportive environment for everyone.

Awareness training can help employees recognise and mitigate unconscious biases that may influence their decisions and interactions. This leads to fairer treatment of colleagues and can improve hiring, promotion, and teamwork practices.

Training also equips employees and managers with the skills to handle conflicts and complaints related to discrimination effectively. This ensures that issues are addressed promptly and fairly, reducing the risk of escalation and fostering a harmonious work environment.

Ultimately, when employees see that their employer is committed to equality and diversity, it boosts their morale and engagement. A respectful and inclusive workplace makes employees feel valued and supported, leading to higher job satisfaction and productivity.


2. Types of Training Programmes and Resources Available


Induction training introduces new employees to the company’s anti-discrimination policies and the importance of diversity and inclusion from the outset. It covers an overview of the Equality Act 2010, company policies, reporting procedures, and basic diversity concepts.

Unconscious bias training helps employees recognise and address their unconscious biases, which can impact decision-making and behaviour. This training includes examples of unconscious bias, its effects on the workplace, and strategies to minimise bias in daily interactions.

Cultural competency training enhances employees’ ability to interact effectively with colleagues from diverse cultural backgrounds. It involves understanding different cultural norms, communication styles, and building cross-cultural relationships.

Anti-harassment and discrimination training educates employees about the various forms of harassment and discrimination, and how to prevent and address them. This training provides definitions and examples of harassment and discrimination, legal implications, and company procedures for handling complaints.

Leadership and management training equips managers with the skills to lead diverse teams, enforce anti-discrimination policies, and foster an inclusive workplace. It covers inclusive leadership practices, managing diverse teams, conflict resolution, and promoting equality in decision-making.

Scenario-based training provides practical, hands-on experience through real-life scenarios and role-playing exercises. Employees engage in interactive scenarios involving discrimination or harassment cases, allowing them to practice responses and decision-making in a controlled environment.

Online training modules offer flexible, accessible training options that employees can complete at their own pace. These modules include comprehensive online courses covering various aspects of diversity, inclusion, and anti-discrimination, often with quizzes and assessments to reinforce learning.

Workshops and seminars facilitate in-depth discussions and learning on specific topics related to diversity and inclusion. Expert-led sessions cover topics such as gender equality, LGBTQ+ inclusion, disability awareness, and more.

Resource libraries provide ongoing access to information and learning materials. These libraries include books, articles, videos, and other resources on diversity, inclusion, and anti-discrimination topics.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) support peer learning and engagement on diversity and inclusion issues. These groups involve activities, discussions, and initiatives led by employees who share common interests or characteristics.

By implementing a variety of training programs and providing accessible resources, employers can ensure that all employees are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to contribute to a respectful and inclusive workplace. Regular training not only reinforces the importance of diversity and equality but also empowers employees to actively participate in creating a positive organisational culture.


Section G: Protected Characteristics Case Studies


The following case studies illustrate some of the discrimination challenges faced by organisations and the importance of robust anti-discrimination policies and procedures.


Case Study 1: Age Discrimination in Recruitment

A technology company faced an age discrimination lawsuit after a qualified older applicant was repeatedly overlooked for a position in favour of younger candidates with less experience. The applicant claimed that during the interview process, the interviewers made comments about the company’s “young and dynamic” team culture, which made him feel unwelcome.

The company was found guilty of age discrimination and was required to pay compensation to the applicant. The case also led to negative publicity and damage to the company’s reputation.

Key takeaways

Recruitment decisions should be based on objective criteria related to the candidate’s skills, experience, and qualifications. Implementing regular diversity and inclusion training can help interviewers recognise and mitigate their biases.

Employers should also avoid making age-related comments or using language that implies a preference for a certain age group.


Case Study 2: Disability Discrimination in the Workplace

A retail employee with a disability requested reasonable adjustments to their work schedule to accommodate medical appointments. The employer denied the request, stating that it would disrupt the business operations. The employee subsequently filed a complaint of disability discrimination.

The employer was found in violation of the Equality Act 2010 for failing to make reasonable adjustments. The company had to provide compensation and make the necessary adjustments to accommodate the employee.

Lessons Learned

Employers are legally required to make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities to ensure they are not disadvantaged. Employers should engage in open dialogue with employees to understand their needs and explore feasible accommodations.

Establishing clear policies on reasonable adjustments and ensuring all staff are aware of them can prevent such issues.


Case Study 3: Gender Discrimination in Promotion

A female employee at a financial services firm was passed over for a promotion in favour of a less qualified male colleague. The female employee had consistently received excellent performance reviews and had more experience. She believed that gender bias played a role in the decision and filed a grievance.

An internal investigation revealed that gender bias influenced the promotion decision. The company had to promote the female employee to the position and implement measures to prevent future discrimination.

Lessons Learned

Implementing transparent and fair promotion processes helps ensure that decisions are based on merit and not biased by gender or other protected characteristics.

Regular training on unconscious bias can help managers make more equitable decisions, and establishing mentorship and sponsorship programs can support the career development of underrepresented groups.


Case Study 4: Racial Discrimination in Pay Disparity

An employee of a minority ethnic background discovered that he was being paid less than his colleagues for the same role and responsibilities. Despite having similar qualifications and experience, he was consistently overlooked for pay raises. He raised a complaint of racial discrimination.

The company conducted a pay audit and found that there was a pay disparity based on race. The company had to rectify the pay differences, provide back pay, and review their pay structure to ensure equity.

Lessons Learned

Implementing clear policies on equal pay for equal work can prevent discrimination, and conducting regular pay audits can help identify and address pay disparities based on race, gender, or other protected characteristics.

Ongoing training and awareness programmes can also help managers understand the importance of pay equity and the impact of discrimination.


Case Study 5: Religious Discrimination in Dress Code

A customer service company implemented a new dress code policy that prohibited employees from wearing head coverings. This policy affected employees who wore head coverings for religious reasons. Several employees raised concerns that the policy was discriminatory.

The company faced backlash and legal challenges for religious discrimination. They had to revise the dress code policy to accommodate religious practices and provide diversity training to all staff.

Lessons Learned

Policies should be inclusive and considerate of employees’ religious practices and beliefs. Involving employees in the development of workplace policies can help ensure they are fair and inclusive.

Regular diversity training can also help employees and management understand and respect different religious practices.


Section H: Debunking Common Myths About Protected Characteristics


There are many misconceptions about protected characteristics and anti-discrimination laws. Addressing these myths is crucial for fostering a more inclusive and informed workplace. Here are some common myths and the facts that debunk them:


Myth 1: “Anti-discrimination laws only apply to large companies.”

Anti-discrimination laws, such as the Equality Act 2010 in the UK, apply to all employers, regardless of the size of the organisation. Small businesses and large corporations alike are required to comply with these laws to ensure fair treatment of all employees and applicants.


Myth 2: “Protected characteristics only cover race and gender.”

Protected characteristics encompass a wide range of attributes. Under the Equality Act 2010, there are nine protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. These protections aim to cover various aspects of identity and ensure comprehensive anti-discrimination measures.


Myth 3: “Employers can’t take any action against employees with protected characteristics.”

Employers can take action against employees with protected characteristics, provided the action is not based on discrimination related to those characteristics. Performance issues, misconduct, and other legitimate reasons for disciplinary action or termination are still valid as long as they are applied consistently and fairly to all employees.


Myth 4: “Positive discrimination is legal and encouraged.”

Positive discrimination, or favouring someone solely because they belong to a protected group, is generally not allowed under UK law. However, positive action, which involves measures to help underrepresented groups overcome disadvantages, is legal and encouraged. Positive action aims to level the playing field without giving unfair advantage based solely on a protected characteristic.


Myth 5: “Discrimination laws only protect employees, not job applicants.”

Anti-discrimination laws protect both employees and job applicants. Employers must ensure that their recruitment processes are free from discrimination and that all candidates are treated fairly, regardless of their protected characteristics. This includes job advertisements, interview processes, and selection criteria.


Myth 6: “Protected characteristics are fixed and unchangeable.”
Some protected characteristics, such as gender reassignment and religion or belief, can change over time. The law protects individuals based on their current characteristics, and it is important for employers to recognise and respect these changes in their employees.


Myth 7: “Only direct discrimination is illegal.”

Both direct and indirect discrimination are illegal. Direct discrimination occurs when someone is treated less favourably because of a protected characteristic. Indirect discrimination happens when a policy or practice that applies to everyone disproportionately disadvantages people with a protected characteristic, and this practice cannot be justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.


Myth 8: “Harassment and bullying are the same as discrimination.”
While harassment and bullying can be forms of discrimination, they are distinct concepts. Harassment involves unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic that violates a person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment. Bullying, on the other hand, refers to repeated, inappropriate behaviour that undermines someone’s dignity or well-being, which may not necessarily be related to a protected characteristic. Both are serious issues that employers must address, but understanding the differences is important for proper intervention and prevention.


Myth 9: “Employees with disabilities should be treated the same as everyone else to be fair.”
Treating everyone the same does not always equate to fairness. Employees with disabilities may require reasonable adjustments to perform their jobs effectively. The Equality Act 2010 mandates that employers make such adjustments to ensure that disabled employees are not at a disadvantage. This tailored approach ensures true equality and inclusivity in the workplace.


Myth 10: “Once a complaint is resolved, no further action is needed.”
Resolving a complaint is just one step in maintaining an inclusive workplace. Employers should continuously review their policies and practices, provide regular training, and foster an open dialogue to prevent future incidents. Ongoing efforts are necessary to sustain a respectful and discrimination-free work environment.


Section H: Summary


To maintain a respectful and inclusive workplace, employers must stay informed about legal requirements and best practices related to protected characteristics.

This demands a commitment to proactive measures that prevent discrimination in the workplace through effective policies and practices that promote fairness, equity, and inclusion. Regular training, transparent processes, and ongoing dialogue are key components in creating a respectful and supportive work environment for all employees.


Section I: Need Assistance?


DavidsonMorris can help with all aspects of workplace discrimination, advising on discrimination-related complaints, as well as strategies to improve diversity and equality in your organisation. For help and advice, speak to our experts.


Section J: FAQ Section


What are protected characteristics?
Protected characteristics are specific attributes safeguarded against discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. These include age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.


Why is it important for employers to understand protected characteristics?

Understanding protected characteristics is crucial for employers to comply with legal obligations, foster an inclusive workplace, and avoid potential lawsuits. It also enhances employee satisfaction and organisational reputation.


What does the Equality Act 2010 cover?
The Equality Act 2010 consolidates previous anti-discrimination laws in the UK. It prohibits direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, and victimisation based on protected characteristics. It also mandates equal pay for equal work and requires reasonable adjustments for disabled individuals.


How can employers promote diversity and inclusion?
Employers can promote diversity and inclusion by developing inclusive policies, providing diversity training, implementing diverse recruitment practices, supporting Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), and fostering an inclusive culture through leadership commitment.


What steps should be taken to handle complaints of discrimination?

Handling complaints involves developing a clear policy, encouraging reporting, acknowledging receipt, conducting a fair investigation, communicating the outcome, and taking appropriate action. Regularly reviewing and improving these procedures is also essential.


What are reasonable adjustments, and when should they be made?
Reasonable adjustments are changes made to accommodate employees with disabilities, ensuring they are not disadvantaged. These adjustments can include modifying workstations, providing assistive technologies, or altering work schedules. Employers are required to make these adjustments when necessary.


Is positive discrimination legal in the UK?
Positive discrimination, or favouring someone solely based on a protected characteristic, is generally illegal in the UK. However, positive action, which involves measures to help underrepresented groups overcome disadvantages, is legal and encouraged.


How can employers ensure fair recruitment practices?
Employers can ensure fair recruitment by using diverse hiring panels, employing blind recruitment techniques, advertising in diverse publications, and focusing on objective criteria related to skills and qualifications.


What is the difference between direct and indirect discrimination?
Direct discrimination occurs when someone is treated less favourably because of a protected characteristic. Indirect discrimination happens when a policy or practice applies to everyone but disproportionately disadvantages people with a protected characteristic without a justifiable reason.


What should be included in diversity training programs?
Diversity training programs should cover topics such as unconscious bias, cultural competency, the benefits of diversity and inclusion, anti-harassment practices, and the organisation’s specific policies and procedures related to equality and discrimination.


What can employees do if they experience discrimination?
Employees should report discrimination through the established channels in their organisation’s grievance policy. They can also seek advice from HR, employee representatives, or external bodies such as ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) for further support.


How often should diversity and inclusion training be conducted?
Diversity and inclusion training should be conducted regularly, ideally on an annual basis, and whenever new policies are introduced or updated. Refresher courses should also be provided to ensure ongoing awareness and understanding.


Are there legal consequences for failing to comply with the Equality Act 2010?
Yes, failing to comply with the Equality Act 2010 can result in legal consequences, including lawsuits, financial penalties, and reputational damage. Employers are encouraged to proactively comply with the Act to avoid these issues.


How can employers measure the effectiveness of their diversity initiatives?
Employers can measure the effectiveness of diversity initiatives by conducting regular surveys, collecting feedback from employees, analysing diversity metrics, and reviewing the outcomes of training programs and policy implementations.


What are the protected characteristics?
Under the Equality Act 2010, the protected characteristics for which a worker will be afforded protection against discrimination are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.


What does it mean to have a protected characteristic?
Having a protected characteristic means you have a right not to be treated less favourably or subjected to an unfair disadvantage by reason of that characteristic, for example, because of your age, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation.


What are examples of protected characteristics?
Examples of protected characteristics include age, disability, gender reassignment, sex, sexual orientation, race, religion or belief. Unlawful discrimination in the workplace can arise where an employer treats an employee less favourably because they possess one of these characteristics.


Section K: Glossary


Anti-Discrimination Policy: A set of guidelines and practices aimed at preventing discrimination in the workplace, ensuring fair treatment for all employees.

Associative Discrimination: Unfair treatment of an individual because of their association with someone who has a protected characteristic.

Direct Discrimination: Treating someone less favourably because of a protected characteristic.

Diversity: The presence of differences within a given setting, encompassing various backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): Voluntary, employee-led groups that aim to foster a diverse, inclusive workplace aligned with the organisation’s mission, values, and goals.

Equality Act 2010: UK legislation that consolidates and strengthens previous anti-discrimination laws, protecting individuals from unfair treatment based on protected characteristics.

Harassment: Unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic that violates a person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment.

Inclusive Workplace: An environment where all employees feel valued, respected, and able to contribute fully, regardless of their background or protected characteristics.

Indirect Discrimination: When a policy, practice, or criterion that applies to everyone disproportionately disadvantages people with a protected characteristic and cannot be justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Positive Action: Measures taken to help people with protected characteristics overcome disadvantages, meet different needs, or participate more fully in work or other activities without giving them an unfair advantage over others.

Protected Characteristics: Specific attributes or traits protected by the Equality Act 2010, including age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

Reasonable Adjustments: Changes or accommodations made to ensure individuals with disabilities can participate fully in work or other activities without being at a disadvantage.

Unconscious Bias: Social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness, affecting their behaviour and decisions.

Victimisation: Treating someone unfairly because they have made or supported a complaint about discrimination.


Section L: Additional Resources


Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)
Provides comprehensive guidance on the Equality Act 2010, case studies, and practical advice for employers on preventing discrimination.


ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service)
Offers resources on workplace policies, handling discrimination complaints, and training programmes.


GOV.UK – Equality Act 2010 Guidance
Official government guidance on the Equality Act 2010, including detailed explanations of protected characteristics.


CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development)
Provides resources and training programmes on diversity and inclusion, HR practices, and legal compliance.


Equality and Diversity UK
Offers various training providers specialising in diversity and inclusion workshops, online courses, and consultancy services.



Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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