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Equality and Discrimination

Businesses must do all they can to prevent discrimination among their workforce, and being up-to-date with equality law is essential.

If you run your own business, you probably already know that you are legally required to avoid and prevent discrimination while doing so. However, exactly what counts as discrimination can be difficult to understand, which may put you at risk of legal action.

The law about discrimination is set out in the Equality Act 2010. Discrimination is defined as treating an individual differently and putting them at a disadvantage because of what is known as a ‘protected characteristic’.

The law says that people must not be treated differently because of:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender
  • marriage or civil partnership
  • pregnancy or having a child
  • race, including their nationality, skin colour or ethnic or national origins
  • religion or other strongly-held belief (or lack thereof)
  • sexual orientation
  • undergoing, having undergone or planning to undergo gender reassignment

When running a business, you must ensure that you do not discriminate against employees, potential employees, or customers.  There are a large number of things to take into consideration in this area, and a number of different ways in which you may inadvertently discriminate against people.

Types of discrimination

Under the Equality Act 2010, there are four different types of discrimination, as described below.

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination is when people are subject to ‘less favourable treatment’ due to one of the protected characteristics listed above. If someone is paid less or passed over for promotion simply because they possess a protected characteristic, this is a clear case of direct discrimination.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination is when everyone is treated the same way, but people with a protected characteristic are put at a disadvantage because of it. For example, if a policy is enacted stating that all employees must work one Sunday a month, this could amount to religious discrimination against Christians due to Sunday being their day of worship and rest.

Because some discrimination may be less obvious than this, you should always consider whether new policies or practices in the workplace could indirectly disadvantage people with particular protected characteristics.


Harassment is when a person with a protected characteristic is subject to bullying in the workplace because of it. Under the law, bullying is defined as ‘unwanted conduct’. This essentially means a person being treated differently by others because of who they are – for example, a woman experiencing unwanted advances or sexual comments from male colleagues.

As an employer, you are responsible for handling any harassment issues which you are aware of or which are brought to your attention, and could face legal action if you fail to act.


Victimisation occurs when someone faces less favourable treatment because they have previously taken action against discrimination under the Equality Act, or supported a claim by someone else. Individuals should not be mistreated at work because they have taken legal action, and if they are then they will be eligible to make further claims.