Handling Protected Characteristics at Work

Posted by

Emmeline de Chazal

on 21 May 2024

It's unlawful to discriminate against employees with protected characteristics. We unpack these traits and how to improve workplace diversity.

Handling Protected Characteristics at Work

The Equality Act 2010 outlines 9 protected characteristics which describe aspects of a person's identity. Most people have a few protected characteristics, and employers have a responsibility to protect employees from discrimination, harassment and bullying in the workplace based on these characteristics.

Managing protected characteristics at work

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Before the Equality Act 2010, different legislation protected individuals against discrimination based on various identity attributes. The act now consolidates all anti-discrimination legislation by outlining 9 protected characteristics.

What are the 9 protected characteristics?

Each of the 9 protected characteristics addresses an aspect of a person's identity that could be the reason for unfair treatment, discrimination or harassment. Employers need to ensure all employees are treated equally and not discriminated against based on these protected characteristics.

1. Age

Age discrimination involves unfair treatment of an individual based on their age. This discrimination often centres around exclusion if an employee or potential employee doesn't fall into a particular age bracket.

Employers need to refrain from asking age-related questions in the interview process and ensure that they offer equal opportunities to all employees regardless of age.

2. Disability

Disability discrimination is an unfair treatment based on an individual's long-term mental or physical impairment/s that impacts their ability to perform day-to-day activities.

Employers have a duty of care to ensure adequate facilities for disabled employees to carry out their job.

3. Gender reassignment

This protected characteristic aims to guard against discrimination based on an individual's transition from one gender to another. Gender reassignment discrimination is treating an employee less favourably because they are trans or are associated with someone who is.

Employers need to identify anything that would put a trans employee at a disadvantage and take steps to adjust these so that these employees are equally represented.

4. Marriage or civil partnership

Discrimination based on this protected characteristic involves the exclusion of an employee due to their marital status. This discrimination is recognised if the union is officially a marriage under UK law or the employee is in a registered civil partnership, including same-sex partnerships.

Employers should be mindful of treating employees less favourably based on this status, such as not promoting an employee due to the assumption they won't have enough time to dedicate to the role.

5. Pregnancy or maternity

Discrimination under this protected characteristic involves unfair treatment of an employee due to their pregnancy or maternity status. This exclusion relates to when an employee is pregnant, is breastfeeding, has a pregnancy-related illness, if they have recently given birth or if they are on maternity leave.

Employers need to ensure that from the beginning of an employee's pregnancy to the end of their maternity leave, they are not treated less favourably.

6. Race

This protected characteristic guards against employees' unfair treatment based on their skin colour, nationality or ethnic origin.

Employers need to protect employees against workplace bullying and ensure they are mindful of unconscious bias to treat everyone equally.

7. Religion or belief

Discrimination against employees due to their religion or beliefs includes unfair treatment based on an employee's faith, religious or philosophical beliefs and a lack of belief.

Employers should make an effort to promote religious diversity in the workplace and ensure that all employees are treated equally regardless of their religion and beliefs.

8. Sex

Discrimination based on this protected characteristic involves less favourable treatment due to an employee's gender. This exclusion is regardless of other protected characteristics the employee might possess.

Employers are responsible for ensuring equality in the treatment of male and female employees, from the interview stage to promotion.

9. Sexual orientation

This form of discrimination is the unfair treatment of employees due to their sexuality. Sexual orientation includes gay, lesbian, heterosexual, asexual or bisexual employees.

Employers need to ensure that they don't treat employees differently due to their sexuality or the sexual orientation of someone they are associated with.

Workplace Gender Equality Tips

Why are protected characteristics important?

Protected characteristics provide an overview of the key identity traits which attract workplace discrimination and harassment. This aims to make it clear that any form of unfair treatment or discriminatory behaviour based on these characteristics is not just unacceptable; it's unlawful.

Employers need to be aware of these characteristics as they are responsible for ensuring that the workplace is free from discrimination. Neglecting this responsibility could result in massive consequences for a business.

As important as this is for employers, it is equally important for employees. Having these protected characteristics listed in the Equality Act 2010 ensures employees know their rights and have a reference point should they experience any form of discrimination at work.

Freedom of speech

Following the recent public dispute between Nigel Farage and Coutts Bank, the British government is reportedly set to impose tighter freedom of speech protections on banking permits. This would require banks to give customers three months' notice before closing their accounts. Coutts closed Farage's bank accounts on the grounds that his political views didn't "align with [their] values". 

Although provisions related to freedom of speech are not directly included in the Equality Act 2010, this is a fundamental human right which allows individuals to express their opinions and ideas without interference or censorship from the government or other authorities. In the UK, freedom of speech is protected under the Human Rights Act 1998.

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What are workplace discrimination consequences?

The law protects employees against discrimination, harassment, unfair treatment and exclusion in the workplace. This protection includes recruitment, training and promotion, pay and benefits, performance management, redundancy and dismissal.

If an employee is treated unfairly, directly or indirectly, employers could face a tribunal claim for unlawful discrimination. Recently, 2 Sisters Food Group dismissed one of their employees for refusing to remove his crucifix necklace at work.

Jevgenijs Kovalkovs worked as a quality inspector for the company and was told that his necklace was a health and safety hazard. However, he insisted that it is a part of his identity and has a "deep and profound meaning" to him.

Following his dismissal for not obeying management instructions, he went to an employment tribunal with the matter and was awarded £22k. The judge found that he had lost his job due to indirect discrimination.

This case shows severe financial and reputational consequences for employers who fall on the wrong side of the law. Employers need to be aware of how they handle issues related to protected characteristics, as it can become discriminatory if handled insensitively.

How to Promote Equality in the Workplace

How can you promote diversity in the workplace?

It is a fact that we all have unconscious biases. Acknowledging this is important and the first step in embracing diversity at work. There are benefits aplenty to having an inclusive company, such as being  87% more likely to make better decisions and 70% more likely to capture new markets.

There are several ways to encourage and promote inclusion and diversity in the workplace, especially with more employees returning to the office.

  • Have safe places for all, such as quiet spaces, wheelchair ramps & prayer rooms
  • Encourage employee social & interest groups to help employees build networks
  • Be mindful of inclusion when planning company holidays
  • Check your language is free from discrimination
  • Host inclusivity training sessions to educate staff on inclusion at work

It is a challenge to be one hundred per cent inclusive all day, every day. However, a little effort goes a long way in building a diverse workplace where employees feel included and businesses reap the rewards of having a content workforce.

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