Whether you’re an employer or an employee, knowing the Equality Act will offer you protection. In fact, it will offer you protection as a customer or client as well.

The Equality Act 2010 offers legal protection from discrimination and, whilst you’re not expected to know every part from start to finish, you are required to follow the law. Additionally, if you feel discriminated against, you’re able to cite the Equality Act to ensure that the discrimination doesn’t continue. Discrimination can, in some cases, lead to legal action.

Knowing the key points of the Equality Act 2010 will benefit you as a small business owner or employer, a worker or employee, a customer or a client.

So, what does the Equality Act class as discrimination?

There are a number of ‘Protected Characteristics’. These are features about you (and anyone else) that cannot be used as the basis for negative treatment. You cannot be discriminated against based on:

  • Your age
  • Any disability
  • Your sex or gender (including gender reassignment status)
  • Your marriage (or civil partnership) status
  • Your race
  • Any religion or belief that you hold
  • Your sexual orientation
  • Pregnancy

What exactly is the Equality Act 2010?

The Equality Act was a 2010 ‘simplification’ of existing laws and regulations in place to provide protection. It brought everything together, replacing a number of separate older laws.

The word ‘simplification’ is used loosely, because of course a combined law has a lot of information to cover. The Act is a large and lengthy detailed document covering many different issues and scenarios, but at its core is there for the protection of all people that might be unfairly discriminated against. The Act covers both direct and indirect discrimination.

What is the difference between direct and indirect discrimination?

Direct discrimination is the act of discriminating against a specific person or characteristic (for example, not giving somebody a job that they’re capable of because they’re using a wheelchair, or unfairly targeting a pregnant lady during a redundancy period).

Indirect discrimination is when a blanket rule is applied to all members of staff (or all customers), putting someone at a disadvantage based on a protected characteristic.

This might mean requiring all members of staff to wear the same uniform, whilst not making allowances for a hijab or similar piece of headwear, or could mean changing shift patterns so that they negatively affect someone with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or another similar condition. If an employer can justify their decision as being necessary or required then it may not count as indirect discrimination in the eyes of the law.

What isn’t an employer legally allowed to ask when hiring someone new?

As part of the Equality Act, an employer cannot ask questions about disability and health before a job offer is made, unless they have a good reason for doing so.

Questions asked should only help to evaluate someone’s suitability for a job role, and so whilst an employer can ask about your legal right to work in the UK they’re not able to require information about where you were born or your religion or ethnicity. If employers do ask for this information, it must be for monitoring purposes. Most employers differentiate these questions by having them on a separate part of an application form.

Interview questions should also not cover marital status, sexuality or whether or not a potential employee has children or dependants. Questions about age should not be asked, nor should questions about someone’s personal life and lifestyle choices – what happens outside of the working environment, and outside working hours, is not the concern of an employer.

Undoubtedly there will be situations when questions do not need to be asked – the interview process enables an employer to see an applicant’s skin colour, perhaps to get a sense of their religion based on their attire or to catch a glimpse of their wedding ring, but these discoveries should not be used as a basis for employment refusal.

Applicants are recommended not to offer up any information that isn’t completely necessary, on an application form or CV. Employers can ask for extra information if they require it and can justify their request.

What about positive discrimination?

‘Positive action’ is the legal and correct name for the act of positive discrimination – helping a person that has a protected characteristic. This is allowed but is optional. Some employers might choose to work with specialist educational facilities, for instance, to support the training of people with disabilities and to then take them on for work experience or for a career within the company once qualified.

Positive action can also take place from company to customer, for example a restaurant offering a discount for people over the age of 60.

What to do if you think that the Equality Act 2010 is not being followed…

If you’re an employee, you have a right to ask around and to discuss what your colleagues are earning or what their contracts cover. They might not wish to provide you with this information, but your employer will be unable to take action against you for asking.

You have a right to ‘reasonable’ adjustments if you’re at a disadvantage in the workplace through no fault of your own. Reasonable adjustments will vary from place to place and from role to role, but will typically include specialist equipment, minor structural changes to a building or documentation that is provided in a more accessible format.

As a customer or service user, bear in mind that the 2010 Act covers discrimination by association – if you were refused access to a venue as the carer of someone with a disability, then you have your own right to a discrimination claim in addition to the claim of person that you were with at the time.

If you feel that you’ve been discriminated against then you are entitled to take legal action. You might choose to start by speaking with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, a relevant charity or organisation, or a union representative.