Protected characteristics

The Equality Act makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate on the grounds of certain characteristics that a person may have. These characteristics are called “protected characteristics” and they are listed below. An employer cannot discriminate against someone because of a protected characteristic.

(a)     Age

(b)     Disability

(c)     Gender reassignment

(d)     Marriage and civil partnership

(e)     Pregnancy and maternity

(f)      Race

(g)     Religion or belief

(h)     Sex

(i)      Sexual orientation

Different forms of discrimination

Discrimination by or against a member of staff is generally prohibited unless there is a specific legal exemption.  Discrimination may be direct or indirect and it may occur intentionally or unintentionally.  Discrimination may occur in the following forms:

Direct discrimination

This is treating someone less favourably because of a protected characteristic. An example of this is paying someone less because of their sex or because they belong to a particular racial group. ‘Because of’ is very wide and includes less favourable treatment based on a perception of another person, for example that the person is gay, or is disabled, whether or not this perception is correct and even if the perpetrator knows that their perception is, in fact, wrong. It also includes less favourable treatment because someone is associated with
another person who has a protected characteristic.

Indirect discrimination

This is treating people in the same way but in a way which adversely affects those with a protected characteristic. For example, a requirement to work full time puts women at a particular disadvantage because they generally have greater childcare commitments than men. Such a requirement will need to be objectively justified.


This is treating someone less favourably because they have asserted their right not to be discriminated against because of a protected characteristic. An example of this would be an employer refusing to promote someone because they gave evidence against the employer in a discrimination case.


This is unwanted conduct, related to a protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for someone or violating their dignity. Harassment may also be of a sexual nature or may occur because someone has harassed the victim and the victim either rejects or submits to it and, because of that rejection or submission, that person treats the victim less favourably.

Consequences of Discrimination

If an employee feels they have been discriminated against they can lodge a grievance with their employer and/or they can bring a claim in the Employment Tribunal for compensation.  There is no requirement for the employee to have been employed for a certain period of time before bringing a claim.

Are you required to have an Equal Opportunities Policy?

No, but it is good practice to have a policy as this will help employers to meet their legal obligations, and avoid the risk of legal action being taken against them. In addition to actually having a policy, it is important the policy is also put into practice.

Our experienced employment team advise both employers and employees on all aspects of employment law including discrimination. We can draft an equal opportunities policy for you. If you are an employee and feel you have been discriminated against we can advise you on your employment rights or if you are an employer on the receiving end of a discrimination claim we can deal with that for you.