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Know the protected characteristics of the Equality Act

Originally published: June 2017 | Last reviewed: May 2018

If you work with people in England, Scotland or Wales, you need to know the UK Equality Act 2010.

This Act updates and brings together various anti-discrimination laws and regulations passed since the 1970s into a single piece of legislation, defining nine personal characteristics that are protected by law:

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

It is unlawful to discriminate against, harass or victimise someone because they have (or are perceived to have) one of these protected characteristics, or if they're associated with someone who has a protected characteristic.

Harassment and victimisation

Harassment is defined as an act or acts that violate someone's dignity or create a hostile, degrading or offensive environment due to a protected characteristic.

Victimisation means treating someone unfavourably because they've taken some form of action relating to the Equality Act — for example, making a complaint under the Act or supporting someone else who's doing so (for instance, appearing as a witness for them at a tribunal).


Beyond harassment and victimisation, discrimination can arise in many forms — and sometimes unintentionally. For example:

  • Direct discrimination: treating someone less favourably because of a protected characteristic, such as an employer deciding not to interview a job applicant due to ethnicity
  • Direct discrimination by perception: treating one person less favourably than another because you incorrectly think he or she has a protected characteristic, such as a hotel owner turning down a potential customer assumed to be gay
  • Indirect discrimination: following a policy or way of doing things that negatively impacts someone with a protected characteristic without an objective justification, such as an employer not allowing staff to cover their hair (which would exclude them from hiring Muslim women)
  • Discrimination arising from disability: treating someone unfavourably because of something connected with a disability without an objective justification
  • Direct discrimination by association: treating a person less favourably because he or she is associated with someone who has a protected characteristic, such as a person who takes care of someone with a disability
  • Failing to make reasonable adjustments: for example, failing to allow a disabled worker to park on site because the company policy is to offer parking only to senior managers

In some instances, reasonable health and safety concerns may permit certain types of discrimination — such as not hiring workers older or younger than a certain age. In these cases, the reasons for discrimination must be clear-cut and justifiable.

What does this mean for an employer?

The Equality and Human Rights Commission allows smaller employers to have fewer or more simple written policies on equality, and to be more informal in how they apply the legislation. That doesn't make them exempt, however. The Equality Act applies to UK employers of any size. It also generally covers temporary employees as well as permanent ones.

As an employer, you might:

Draft an equal opportunities policy

An equal opportunities policy tailored to your particular circumstances can help you embed a strong culture of equality within your organisation.

Handle employee policies and practices with care

For example:

  • Keep protected characteristics out of job descriptions and interviews. For example, don't refer to "young graduates" in a job description. Similarly, don't ask questions about protected characteristics in a job interview. Also be careful to ask consistent questions of all job candidates. (It's not acceptable, however, to ask all candidates the same question if you're interested only in one candidate's answer — such as asking everyone about parenting plans, simply because one candidate is a recently married woman in her late twenties.)
  • Make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees. This might include adjustments to an employee's work space or hours.
  • Clearly publicise opportunities for promotion. Make sure all qualified employees have the opportunity to apply, and that employees of a particular protected characteristic aren't overlooked. For example, a staff member who works part-time to care for children or ageing parents shouldn't miss out on the chance to apply for another position that could also be done on a part-time basis.
  • Ensure pay equity. Regularly check employee contracts to ensure that male and female employees are treated lawfully. If doing equal work, they have a right to equal pay and benefits.

Establish equal opportunities for volunteers

Although volunteers aren't protected from discrimination under the employment provisions of the Equality Act — because they're not classed as employees — it is of course best practice to treat volunteers with similar attention to equality.

However, volunteers do have some legal protection against discrimination under the goods and services provisions of the Act (as they are providing a form of service).

Consider other implications of the Equality Act

The law doesn't just apply to how you treat your staff. It also applies to you as a service provider. In other words, it's unlawful to discriminate against a potential beneficiary or other member of the public due to a protected characteristic.

However, there's something in the law called the charities exception. This allows a charity to limit its benefits to people who share a protected characteristic, even though this could exclude (and therefore discriminate against) people with other protected characteristics. For example, the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) provides special facilities for visually impaired people, rather than to other disabled people.

Such exclusions are permitted if both of the following conditions are met:

  • The charity's governing document allows only people with a certain protected characteristic to benefit from its work
  • The restriction can be justified because it aims to prevent, or compensate for, a disadvantage — or it's a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim

Any organisation that restricts its beneficiaries to groups that share a protected characteristic but can't justify the restriction can't be classed as a charity because the work isn't for the public benefit. The Equality and Human Rights Commission provides more detail on the charities exception and examples of how it would apply.

This article draws on the expertise of YourPeople, a UK-based firm that provides outsourced human resources services across all sectors.

Looking for US-specific guidance? Check out equal employment opportunities in the US.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



ACAS: The Equality Act 2010

Equality and Human Rights Commission: The Equality Act: Guidance for small businesses: Understanding legal definitions of discrimination and unlawful behaviour in the Equality Act

GOV.UK and Charity Commission: Equality Act guidance for charities (2013)

Knowhow Nonprofit: Equal opportunities policies (2016)

Equality and Human Rights Commission: Exceptions: charities and religion or belief organisations (2016)

The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator: Charities and the Equality Act 2010 — what charity trustees should consider

ACAS: Prevent discrimination: Support equality (2015)



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