Last updated: 25.07.17

Equality Act 2010 - Equality in the Workplace Legislation

What is the Equality Act 2010?

The Equality Act 2010 is a set of laws implemented by the UK government to protect the rights of individuals in society, and advance equal opportunities for everyone. This act brings together and replaces numerous anti-discrimination laws passed since 1970, covering equal pay, gender, sexual orientation, race, and much more.

The aim was to make these laws and provisions clearer and easier to follow, as well as strengthening some of them to ensure they are effective. This Equality Act 2010 now forms the UK’s core legal framework for dealing with discrimination.

Equality in the workplace legislation

This act has important consequences for workplaces in particular, covering everything from recruitment, working hours, and pay, to business policies, training, and grievance procedures.

Both employers and employees should be familiar with what the Equality Act 2010 means in practice, and how it applies to their workplace through appropriate training such as Virtual College’s Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Workplace course. 

Here we’re going to take a look at who the act protects, what it protects them from, and how it works.

Who does this legislation protect?

The Equality Act defines a set of ‘protected characteristics’, and to discriminate against any person because of one or more of these characteristics is against the law. No one characteristic has priority over any other, and any number can be included in a discrimination lawsuit.

The Equality Act 2010 protected characteristics:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation

Note: Being an ex-offender is not one of the protected characteristics included in this legislation, though there are some protections in place in UK law. For example, employers may not refuse to hire someone with a spent conviction unless the job legitimately requires a criminal record check.

What is discrimination?

Discrimination can take many forms relating to the characteristics listed above, but four key types are defined in UK law.

  • Direct discrimination – treating someone negatively or less favourably due to one or more of the protected characteristics.
  • Indirect discrimination – where company rules or other policies that apply to everyone put a person with a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage.
  • Harassment – creating an offensive environment or violating someone’s dignity through unwanted behaviour
  • Victimisation – treating someone unfairly because they’ve previously made an accusation or complained about discrimination

Discrimination in the workplace

It’s essential for employees and employers to know how the Equality Act 2010 applies in the workplace, as it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure discrimination never occurs. There are also procedures that need to be followed when questions are raised over possible discriminatory conduct 

The law is designed to protect against many possible consequences of discrimination at work, such as these key areas:

  • Dismissal
  • Terms and conditions of employment
  • Pay and benefits
  • Promotions and transfer opportunities
  • Training and qualifications
  • Recruitment

An employer’s responsibilities

As an employer, it’s your responsibility to ensure that discrimination does not occur within your business. This responsibility increases oi you are part of the public sector, where you have a legal obligation to do this as well as promote equality and cooperation between people with differing protected characteristics.

It’s your duty to not discriminate on the grounds of any of the protected characteristics included the legislation, whether that’s through paying different wages for the same job based on gender, or refusing to hire someone because of their ethnic background or religion. If in doubt, always consult the government’s guidelines and your HR department.


A disabled employee may require additional action from their employer to ensure they can carry out their job, and this is known as ‘reasonable adjustments’. If the employee requests adjustments, or you become aware of difficulties preventing them doing their job to the full, then you must consider how you can accommodate their needs, whether that’s adapting the structure of their working hours or making physical changes to the working environment. 

Positive action

Positive action is about proactively helping to eliminate any disadvantages for employees or potential applicants because of protected characteristics, or if the company has a disproportionately low number of people with any of the protected characteristics. However, it must be demonstrated that through taking positive action others are not discriminated against as a consequence.

Resolving problems

If an issue of discrimination does arise, the resolution process can be complex, but should always start with clear communication. Often an issue can be resolved through an informal conversation, but you should always keep written documentation of both sides of the discussion.

If the issue needs to be escalated, mediation with a third party, such as a trade union, will help both employee and employer come to a satisfactory agreement. If the issue is more serious and cannot be resolved internally, then the final step would be a taking an employer to an employment tribunal for unlawful conduct. In some cases, employees can get legal aid to help with costs in this situation.

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