The Equality Act – England & Wales

As a worker you are protected under the Equality Act 2010 from being discriminated against on the grounds of a protected characteristic.  

The “protected characteristics” under the Act are: 

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

Under the Act people are not allowed to discriminate, harass or victimise another person because they have any of the protected characteristics. This applies to you whether you are an employee, self-employed, working through an agency, a company director, a partner of a firm or on secondment. This protection applies to all stages in the employment process including recruitment, promotion, retirement, selection for redundancy and dismissal.

If you think you may have suffered discrimination at work, it is important that you seek prompt legal advice.

What behaviour is unlawful?

Direct Discrimination

It is illegal for your employer to treat you less favourably because you have a protected characteristic. To show direct discrimination, you need to compare your treatment with the treatment of someone who doesn’t have the same protected characteristic as you. 

You can also experience direct discrimination by perception. This happens if you are discriminated because someone thinks you hold a protected characteristic, even if you don’t actually hold that characteristic. 

For example, an employer refuses to promote you to a more senior, client-facing role, because your managers believe that you are gay. Even if you do not identify as gay, this is still unlawful conduct. 

Additionally, you can experience direct discrimination because of someone you’re with, or someone you know. This is called direct discrimination by association. 

For example, you take time off work to take care of your disabled child, and you are disciplined by your manager. Your manager does not discipline employees who take similar amounts of time off work for other reasons. You may have a claim of discrimination because of your association with someone with a protected characteristic. 

Indirect Discrimination

Indirect discrimination occurs when a practice, policy or rule applies to all employees, but disadvantages those with a particular protected characteristic. You can challenge a practice, policy or rule only if it affects you personally. You will also need to show that other people affected by the policy, rule or practice (but not in the protected group) aren’t disadvantaged. 

For example, there’s a clause in your contract which says that you might have to travel around the UK at short notice. If you’re a woman with young children, this may be difficult. The clause therefore puts you at a disadvantage, even though it is neutral and applies to everyone. It also places women generally at a disadvantage as they are more likely to be the carers or children. The clause may constitute indirect discrimination. 

Indirect discrimination can sometimes be lawful. If your employer can demonstrate “objective justification” – a good enough reason for the policy, practice or rule – then it is not unlawful. 


In the workplace, harassment is “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”. Harassment can take a number of forms: it can be spoken abuse, offensive emails, online comments, images, gestures or facial expressions. 

Sexual harassment is considered discrimination based on sex. 

Victimisation and Whistleblowing

It is unlawful to victimise an employee because they have raised or supported a grievance relating to discrimination. Additionally, the provision protects employees from victimisation if their employer believes that they raised or supported a grievance, even if they didn’t actually do so. 

The Equality and Human Rights Commission

image of the Equality and Human Rights Commission logo.

We work directly with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on some of our clients’ cases, such as the Manders’ adoption discrimination case. The EHRC is Britain’s national regulatory body responsible for enforcing the Equality Act 2010.

If you think you may have suffered discrimination at work, it is important that you seek prompt legal advice. For a confidential discussion of your legal options, contact us on +44 (0) 20 3048 5959, or fill out our contact form