The Nine Protected Characteristics in UK Law

By Amanda Beattie
03 Mar 2022
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In UK employment law, the Equality Act 2010 identifies nine protected characteristics. In HR, we talk about them mostly in relation to preventing and tackling discrimination in the workplace. You need to understand them well to sustain an inclusive, highly motivated workforce.

In an economy challenged by long-standing job vacancies, company culture can make a real difference in attracting the right employees. Inclusivity will contribute to a more attractive working environment.

Employment contracts and employee handbooks include a standard Equality & Diversity section. Call our experienced contracts and documentation team today, to ensure you have everything covered in your documents, on 01455 858 132.

Here, we will look in-depth at the protected characteristics by UK law.

How many protected characteristics are there?

Nowadays, most people recognise a few basic types of discrimination. This means that they can also identify a few of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act.

By increasing awareness in the workplace, employers can reduce the likelihood of discrimination and avoidable conflict. Identifying problematic behaviour early can hold the key to avoiding employment tribunal claims.

What Are Protected Characteristics

Issues with staff conduct don’t always relate to protected characteristics. Unfortunately, employees can bully or harass their colleagues without targeting one of these aspects.  Even when not discriminating, some individuals still display rude, disturbing behaviour that you need to tackle.

The Equality Act 2010 provides the following protected characteristics list:

  1. Age
  2. Disability
  3. Gender reassignment
  4. Marriage and civil partnership
  5. Pregnancy and maternity
  6. Race
  7. Religion or belief
  8. Sex
  9. Sexual orientation

UK law evolved in time to include further characteristics than previously identified. The current piece of legislation was preceded by the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. While awareness and legal protection have increased in recent decades, there is still room for improvement. Discrimination cases continue to make history in court, such as the 2012 Met Police case that identified racist and homophobic behaviour.

As we already mentioned, just ticking a list won’t keep your business and your workforce safe. Start with constantly reviewing company rules, policies, and procedures, which can lead to indirect discrimination. Also, train your staff to identify and avoid discriminating behaviours and contribute towards improving company policies.

Below, we will discuss how each characteristic is protected by the law.

Protected characteristics – Age

Available data shows that over 40% of employees in their 50s experienced age discrimination at work. Younger generations also tend to struggle with accessing and securing employment.

Recruiting websites still display a worrying number of job ads that use discriminating requirements, such as 3-5 years of experience. A young candidate, fresh out of training, cannot have years of experience in their field and end up excluded from the start. To avoid discriminating, these ads should specify the exact skills and level of skills needed for the role. Some people learn and progress faster, so setting an expectation in years of experience doesn’t help, one way or another.  

Discrimination Protected Characteristics

You also need to look out for examples of staff discriminating against their colleagues, such as:

  • Using inappropriate language to describe staff members in a specific age group
  • Excluding employees of a certain age from team activities, in work or social situations
  • Skipping team members from promotions or projects due to their age

Protected characteristics – Disability

Disability discrimination occurs when an individual receives less favourable treatment due to a long-term physical or mental injury/difficulty.

Remember that individuals with certain mental health issues or conditions do highly function. That doesn’t mean they don’t struggle from inflexible workplace rules or environments. An adult with autism who developed great coping skills might hide their situation out of fear of losing their job. However, this means they’ll lack the support that could help them perform much better and live a happier life. And additional stress could break them at a point where you need them most.

By promoting an inclusive culture, based on trust and supportiveness, you will encourage employees to come forward about their disability. Then you discuss and create reasonable adjustments to enable them to use their full potential at work.

For somebody on the autistic spectrum, that could mean more flexible working. For an employee with physical impairments, look at adapting the physical environment around them. Remember that cancer and multiple sclerosis classify as physical disabilities by UK law.

Protected characteristics – Gender reassignment

Gender reassignment refers to the process of changing from one sex/gender to another. Treating a member of staff worse because you or your employees suspect they are transexual/transgender means discriminating against them.

Individuals who identify as a different gender than their biological one don’t need to have undergone surgery. This remains a personal choice. Their employer and colleagues must respect their choice and ensure they do not exclude transgender people in the workplace.

We have seen examples of transgender discrimination such as:

  • Removing an employee from a client facing position, out of public view
  • Allowing hurtful comments from other employees as “banter”
  • Refusing to refer to the employee as their preferred gender (she, he, or they)

Protected characteristics – Marriage or civil partnership

Treating somebody differently due to their relationship status also amounts to discrimination. This applies to marriages between a man and a woman, or between people of the same sex.

One of the most prevalent examples our advisors have seen refers to recently married women. In some cases, employers assume they will become pregnant and skip them from promotions or bigger projects. 

The same type of discrimination tends to happen at the hiring stage. When a company prefers single women as candidates over married young women, they discriminate against the latter.

Protected characteristics – Pregnancy and maternity

Protected Characteristics Under The Equality Act

We can see how the above discriminatory situations can extend to pregnant employees or women with children. If you avoid promoting women due to their pregnancy, or the fact they have young children, then you discriminate against them.  

Instead, as an employer, you should discuss how to support women through pregnancy and maternity in the workplace. Just because they become mothers, they don’t lose their professional capacities. Enable them to perform at their best, with necessary adjustments such as a flexible work schedule. You will only have to gain from increasing retention and a good reputation as a company.

Protected characteristics – Race

This refers not only to people’s race but also nationality/ethnic groups. Racial discrimination occurs when individuals defined by this characteristic receive less favourable treatment.

If you employ a racially and ethnically diverse workforce, check the distribution of management responsibilities. Let’s say 70% of your employees come from various racial and national backgrounds, but your line management stays predominantly White British. In such a situation, you might want to consider how you can support minority staff members looking to reach higher positions.

Discrimination against employee’s race and nationality can occur:

  • Directly – a job advert that specifies applicants need to speak English natively
  • Indirectly – your policies require employees to hold a university degree obtained in the UK for certain positions

Protected characteristics - Religion or belief

This covers individuals and groups who uphold religious or philosophical beliefs that play an important part in their lives. You or other employees cannot shun people due to their religion, nor treat them badly.

The tricky part regarding this characteristic comes from determining what classes as religion or belief. The Equality Act specifies that the belief needs to play a weighty, essential part in the person’s life. That makes it different to a simple opinion.

In a relevant case law, an employee refused to return to the workplace due to fear of COVID and argued it as their “belief”. However, the Employment Tribunal decided that fear of COVID didn’t amount to a philosophical belief.

Is Veganism A Protected Characteristic

Our advisors have frequently come across the following question:

Is veganism a protected characteristic?

We can confirm that you should consider ethical veganism a philosophical belief and accommodate the needs and choices of your vegan employees.

Protected characteristics – Sex

Employers and their employees cannot treat a staff member less favourably because they are a man or a woman.  

Sadly, sex or gender stereotypes tend to creep into all aspects of life, from employment to household roles. Some of these can be so deeply ingrained into everyday life, that people no longer perceive them as negative stereotypes.

We touched previously on one aspect linked to an individual’s sex -motherhood. However, our HR advisors have seen more subtle examples of sex discrimination:

  • Rejection of a male candidate’s application for a front sales role at the makeup desk of a cosmetic brand
  • Appointing women only in lower management roles, on the assumption they have less business drive and stamina
  • Allowing driving for business only to male employees, on the assumption they are better drivers
  • Asking women only to use specific footwear at work (high heels) with no equivalent requirement for men (a certain cut of shoes)

Protected characteristics – Sexual orientation

Countries like the UK have seen a lot of progress in protecting the rights of sexual minorities. Yet, discrimination still occurs, as does homophobia. No such attitudes or behaviours should be overlooked in the workplace.

Also, it helps to understand that the human sexuality spectrum doesn’t split between just two versions. Sexual minorities include:

  • Bisexual people
  • Gay people
  • Asexual people

Employers should discourage staff members from joking about their colleagues’ sexual orientation. So-called banter could easily get out of hand and result in degrading intimidating, or harassing behaviour.

Discrimination, bullying and harassment in the workplace

Enabling your employees to identify and prevent situations of discrimination will contribute to creating a solid, inclusive workforce. When in doubt, always double check and make sure you take business-orientated decisions, rather than risk making biased choices.

But what do you do when a workplace conflict arises that has nothing to do with the above characteristics? Let’s say, for example, one of your employees prefers a bohemian style that doesn’t go against the workplace dress code. However, a colleague constantly mocks them about their flower-power, dated style, to the point of bullying.

To prevent this, you need a good anti-bullying policy and procedure to follow in dealing with such a situation. Just because personal fashion style isn’t a protected characteristic, it doesn’t mean employees can be treated badly because of their personal preferences.

Get support from a Croner advisor

As we have seen above, awareness about the characteristics protected under the Equality Act will help you avoid discrimination. In doing so, not only will you reduce the risks of tribunal claims, but you will also increase retention and create a positive, inclusive workplace culture.

If you are struggling with a workplace conflict or dealing with a claim, we are here to help. We will support you with any urgent situation you might be facing. Call our 24/7 HR advice line today, on 01455 858 132.

About the Author

Amanda Beattie

Amanda represents corporate clients and large public bodies, including complex discrimination and whistleblowing claims. Amanda also drafts and delivers bespoke training regarding all aspects of employment law, including ‘mock tribunal’ events; in addition she also frequently drafts employment law articles for various publications for Croner and their clients.

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