What is a Protected Characteristic at Work?

24 January 2019

A protected characteristic is a personal characteristic, such as age, sexuality or religion, which is protected by law. Under the Equality Act 2010, it is against the law to discriminate against a person on the basis of a protected characteristic.

There are 9 protective characteristics that are set out in the Equality Act 2010. These are:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

Discrimination because of a Protected Characteristic

Under the Equality Act, protection against discrimination applies to people at work as well as consumers, those in education, those using public services, those buying or renting property and members or guests of a private club or association.

Discrimination can come in a number of forms – direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation.

Direct discrimination is when a person is treated less favourably than others because of a protected characteristic. In the workplace, direct discrimination could be not selecting someone for a promotion because they are pregnant, for example, or not offering someone a job because they are considered to be too old.

Indirect discrimination is when rules or practices are put in place which apply to everybody, but these place someone at a disadvantage because of a protected characteristic. If the person who has put the practice in place can't demonstrate that there's a good enough reason for doing so then this could amount to indirect discrimination. An example of indirect discrimination could be a clause in an employment contract stating that all workers may need to travel or work late at short notice. This could put a mother of young children at a disadvantage and therefore be indirect discrimination.

Harassment is classed as unwanted conduct that violates a person's dignity or creates a hostile environment for them because of a protected characteristic. This could come in the form of racist, sexist or homophobic jokes, for example, or unwelcome sexual advances.

Victimisation is when someone is treated unfairly because of a complaint they have made, or proceedings they have taken, about discrimination or harassment that has previously taken place.

Reasonable Adjustments in the Workplace

Under the Equality Act, there are additional measures in place to protect people with a disability. The Equality Act defines a disability as being a "physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities."

If a person has a disability which puts them at a disadvantage in the workplace or when applying for a job, the employer has a legal duty to make 'reasonable adjustments' so that they can overcome this disadvantage. The employer will also be responsible for covering the cost of these adjustments.

When making reasonable adjustments, an employer may be expected to change processes in the workplace, make physical changes to the work environment and provide additional aids or support to the disabled person.

If You Have Suffered Discrimination

If you believe that you have been the victim of unlawful discrimination in the workplace, you should speak to an Employment Solicitor who can provide you with advice and guidance on the next steps to take. Be aware that there are strict time limits in place when it comes to discrimination cases, so it's important that you act quickly to avoid running out of time.

At Co-op Legal Services, our Employment Solicitors understand how distressing discrimination in the workplace can be, and how daunting it can be to take the first step. If we take on your discrimination claim, we will be on hand to support and guide you throughout your case.

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