The Equality Act 2010 makes it against the law to discriminate against a person who has a protected characteristic. These characteristics include sex, religion, or age. Discrimination can occur anywhere but as HR consultants, we’re specifically talking about protected characteristics in the workplace.
This blog explains the protected characteristics, how discrimination can occur, how employers can avoid discrimination, and how Metis HR can help you stay compliant.
Protected Characteristics In The Workplace
Formed to replace separate anti-discrimination laws with one easy to understand Act, The Equality Act 2010 provides people with legal protection against discrimination in the workplace and wider society.
9 protective characteristics are set out in the Equality Act 2010. These are:
- gender reassignment
- marriage and civil partnership
- pregnancy and maternity
- religion or belief
- sexual orientation
As mentioned, the Equality Act protects people at work as well as in society. Workplace discrimination disputes arise when an employer has acted unfairly towards an employee, or potential employee based on a protected characteristic.
Discrimination isn’t always intentional, and employers can inadvertently discriminate against employees or potential employees. If this isn’t picked up until it is too late it can sever trust with employees, damage reputations, and potentially end in a legal dispute.
The two main forms of discrimination are as follows.
Direct discrimination in the workplace is treating an employee or job candidate unfavourably because of a protected characteristic. This is done deliberately, and the most common forms are overlooking people for promotions or not offering jobs to candidates, based on a protected characteristic.
Here are two examples:
- Not hiring a person because they are considered too old (direct age discrimination)
- Not promoting someone based of their race (direct racial discrimination)
Indirect discrimination usually arises when companywide rules or policies are put in place without taking people with protected characteristics into account. Contracts, policies, and rules must be developed to ensure all employees are treated equally.
Here are two examples:
- A dress code policy banning cornrows or dreadlocked hairstyles. Such a policy would disproportionately affect employees who may wear these hairstyles for cultural reasons (indirect racial discrimination)
- A new out of work team activity is organised and takes place in a pub. Employees who can’t visit pubs for religious reasons would therefore be left out of the activity (indirect religious discrimination)
As an employer, you must be conscious of protected characteristics as discrimination in any form can be damaging to your business.
Damage can be legal, financial, and affect the happiness of your staff and your reputation as an employer. In some cases, employees may not report discrimination and simply look for other employment. Or employees may feel they have no choice but to ‘put up with’ discrimination – this could negatively affect their mental health and productivity.
How Can Employers Avoid Discrimination?
We would hope most employers are not deliberately discriminating against employees – most cases of discrimination we see are from a lack of awareness or lack of consideration.
Areas to be mindful of indirect discrimination is in the creation of policies and employee contracts. If you are not experienced in policy and contract creation, or how certain rules may affect employees with protected characteristics then it is best to leave things like this to professionals.
A good way to ensure you don’t make any mistakes would be to work with an HR consultant. Here at Metis HR, we offer an HR Manager Business Support Package which includes the exact type of support you need to avoid indirect discrimination. The package includes an assessment of your existing employment contracts and staff handbook. We will also revise contracts where necessary and provide inclusive policies that reduce your risk of inadvertently discriminating against an employee.
For employers who find themselves in a situation where an employee has complained about discrimination and asked for a resolution, our workplace mediation service may be appropriate. Working with an employee to resolve the issue to a satisfactory degree for both of you is less expensive and more productive than going down the legal route. Both employer and employee must want to resolve the situation though.
If you have any questions about protected characteristics, discrimination or our HR services, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch.