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Equality Act 2010 - Equality in the Workplace Legislation

schedule 3 weeks, 3 days by Ben Piper in Virtual College

Equality in the workplace legislation

Equality Act 2010 - Equality in the Workplace Legislation

The Equality Act 2010 is a piece of legislation implemented by the UK government to protect the rights of individuals both in the workplace and society as a whole. Rather than being the introduction of an entirely new set of laws, this legislation replaced numerous anti-discrimination laws that previously existed, in such a way that made them clearer and easier to follow. In some cases, it also strengthened provision. It is intended to be the UK’s core legal framework for dealing with discrimination.

It has important consequences in the workplace in particular, and both employers and employees should be familiar with what it means for them. In this article, we’re going to take a brief look at who the Act protects, what it protects them from, and how this works in practice.

Virtual College offers a dedicated Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace course. To find out more about how it can help your organisation, and what the course covers, click here

Who Does this Legislation Protect?

Under the Equality Act 2010, there are is a defined set of what are known as ‘protected characteristics’. Discriminating against any person because of one or more of these is against the law. None have priority over any others, and one or more may be included in any case of discrimination.

The protected characteristics are as follows:

  • age
  • being or becoming a transsexual person
  • being married or in a civil partnership
  • being pregnant or on maternity/paternity leave
  • disability
  • Race, which includes colour, nationality, or ethnic/national origin
  • religion, belief or lack of either
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

Note: Being an ex-offender is not one of the protected characteristics, though such individuals do have some protections under the law. For example, employers may not refuse to hire someone with a spent conviction unless the job requires a criminal record check.

What is Discrimination?

Exactly what constitutes discrimination can be difficult to ascertain in practice, but under UK law, there are four forms it is generally considered to take. Note however that in some cases, it may not be considered to be discrimination if the action can be justified.

The four forms are:

  • Direct discrimination - If a person is treated negatively compared to others based on one of the protected characteristics, then this would be considered direct discrimination
  • Indirect discrimination - Where broad rules are put in place that apply to everyone, but which would specifically be detrimental to a person with one of the protected characteristics, this would be indirect discrimination
  • Harassment - This includes putting a person in an offensive environment, disregarding their dignity, and other similar behaviour
  • Victimisation - If a person is treated unfairly specifically because they have previously made an accusation of discrimination, this would be considered victimisation

In the Workplace

Employers and employees both need to understand how the Act applies in the workplace, as both parties have a responsibility to ensure other people are not discriminated against. There are also procedures to follow when questions are raised over discriminatory conduct.

There are a variety of areas in which the Act may be important, and where discrimination is most likely to occur. These include:

  • redundancy or being fired
  • terms and conditions of employment
  • pay and benefits
  • promotions
  • training and qualifications
  • recruitment

What Employers Must Do: A Summary

As an employer, it’s your responsibility to ensure that discrimination does not occur within your business. The responsibility increases if you are part of the public sector, in which case you have a legal obligation to do this, and are also required to promote equality and cooperation between people of differing protected characteristics.

In short, you must ensure that you do not discriminate against any of the protected characteristics, in any of the listed forms, in any aspect of work and employment. This could include everything from paying men and women different wages for the same job, solely on the basis of their sex, to refusing to hire someone based on their religious beliefs or ethnic background. If in doubt, consult your HR department or government guidelines on the matter.

There are two other points to consider under the Equality Act 2010, both of which deal with things that you should actively do, rather than simply avoid.

The first is that disabled people may require additional help from their employer. If they request adjustments, you become aware of their disability, or their disability causes them to have any difficulties carrying out their job, then you must consider making what are known as ‘reasonable adjustments’ in the workplace. The aim of this is to ensure they have the same ability to do their job as someone without this protected characteristic, and can include everything from changing the structure of their working hours, to installing physical modifications to the workplace environment.

The second point is about ‘positive action’. This means employers can take action to help either their employees or job applicants if they believe that their protected characteristic gives them some form of disadvantage, or if the company has a disproportionately low number of people with any of the protected characteristics. It must be demonstrated that this will not discriminate against others however.

Resolving Problems

Where issues surrounding discrimination do arise, the process of resolving them can sometimes be complex, but they should always start with communication. Very frequently, an informal conversation between employer and employee will sort out the problem. Beyond that, it is very important to keep written documentation of both sides of the discussion. Mediation is generally the next step, in which a third party, such as a trade union, will help both employer and employee come to an agreement.

The final and most serious step would be an employee taking their employer to an employment tribunal for unlawful conduct in regards to discrimination. In some cases, employees can get legal aid to help with costs in this situation.

To find out more about the courses that Virtual College can deliver on the subject of employment and discrimination, visit our Equality and Diversity section here.


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Ben Piper - Virtual College

Author: Ben Piper

Ben is a member of the Virtual College marketing team. He has a degree in economics and writes about business and education issues. In his spare time he loves food, drink and films.

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