The 9 protected characteristics

There are lots of reasons that people are mistreated at work. UK law protects people who are discriminated against because of certain personal attributes. This article gives some examples of what this might look like.

Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 protects people in England, Scotland and Wales from discrimination. The Act lists nine ‘protected characteristics’. It’s illegal for you to be treated unfairly for reasons that relate to one of these characteristics.

There are some exceptions to these, depending on the characteristic. You can read about these on the Equality and Human Rights Commission guides

The 9 protected characteristics

If you’re raising a complaint - either informally or through a formal grievance procedure - you should focus on setting out the facts of how you have been treated, and the impact it has had on you. It’s often a good idea to mention any clear link between the protected characteristics and the way you have been treated. 

How do I raise a grievance?

Disability

Being disabled means you have a physical or mental health condition that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your day-to-day life.

You don’t have to disclose your disability. However, your employer won’t be liable for discrimination if they don’t know you’re disabled.

If they do know, or could reasonably be expected to know, that you are disabled, the Equality Act protects you in many different ways. 

For example:

  • If you can no longer do your job because you have become disabled, your employer can sometimes move you to a different role. However, they must follow strict procedures to make sure they are treating you fairly
  • If you don’t meet your performance targets because your disability makes aspects of your role difficult or impossible, you can’t be refused any associated benefits  
  • When applying for a job, an employer can only reject your application if your disability would completely prevent them from doing the job even with adjustments. For example, if the job requires heavy lifting, they can reject an applicant who can’t physically lift things

The disability charity Scope has a discussion forum for employment related issues. This can be helpful if you want to analyse your specific situation.

Race

Racial discrimination includes unfair treatment due to your:

  • skin colour
  • nationality
  • citizenship
  • ethnicity

Examples of racial discrimination in the workplace include:

  • you aren’t given an interview because your name suggests a certain ethnicity 
  • a role profile states that you need an excellent level of written English communication skills, when this isn’t really necessary to carry out the role
  • you aren’t invited to as many client meetings as your colleagues who have a different skin colour

Religion or Belief

Protections under the Religion or Belief characteristic include:

  • being a member of a large religious community
  • following the tenets of a smaller religion
  • having a genuinely held, substantial, philosophical belief
  • not having a religion or particular belief

The Equality Act explanatory notes give more detail about what is classified as a religion or belief.

Examples of religion or belief discrimination in the workplace include:

  • your employer dismisses you because of your religious beliefs
  • your shift pattern does not allow you to take a break for prayer
  • your employer asks applicants to a role to be of a specific religion, and this is not necessary to carry out the role

Sex

Sex discrimination means being treated unfairly because of your sex or gender - whether you are male or female. This includes the sex someone thinks you are.

Examples include:

  • A workplace has a dress code policy which gives different standards for men and women
  • A mother is offered flexible working hours because of childcare responsibilities, but a father isn’t offered the same because the employer assumes childcare is a woman’s job
  • People are making sexist comments in the workplace and this is not challenged by management  

Pregnancy and Maternity

You can’t be discriminated against because you’re pregnant, suffering from pregnancy-related illness, are breastfeeding, or have recently given birth. 

  • The protected period starts as soon as your employer knows, believes, or suspects that you are pregnant 
  • The protected period ends when you come back to work after your maternity leave. If you don’t take maternity leave, it ends two weeks after your child is born 
  • When the protected period has ended, you still can’t be discriminated against for having taken maternity leave or tried to take maternity leave

Some examples of pregnancy and maternity discrimination include:

  • Your boss doesn’t give you an interesting project because they think you ‘won’t cope’ due to your pregnancy - but they’ve been given no grounds to think that
  • You are given a different position after returning from maternity leave, and you don’t feel this is equivalent to your previous role
  • You complain that you were treated unfairly because you are pregnant, and you are then treated badly because you complained

The advocacy group Pregnant Then Screwed have an employment rights advice line for pregnant women and new mothers

Gender Reassignment

This characteristic covers people who identify with a different gender to the one they were assigned at birth. 

Under the Equality Act, you don’t need to have undergone any specific treatment or surgery, but you do need to have changed your gender or be taking steps to do so.

Intersex and non-binary people

The Equality Act  doesn’t specifically mention intersex people. However, if you are being discriminated against because you are intersex the Equality and Human Rights Commission says that sex discrimination or disability discrimination may be relevant

Non-binary identities are not specifically mentioned in the Equality Act, either. However, people have successfully brought cases of non-binary discrimination under the characteristic of Gender Reassignment.

Read the Employment Tribunal decision from a successful case about non-binary discrimination  

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation discrimination also covers expressions of sexual orientation, like appearance or where you spend your time outside of work. 

Examples include:

  • homophobic comments in the workplace (what some people call ‘workplace banter’), for example equating being a gay man with being weak and ‘unmanly’
  • refusing to give someone a job because they are perceived as being gay, even if they are not
  • excluding bisexual people from LGBTQ events

Age

Age discrimination includes your actual age, and how old people think you are.

Age discrimination might mean:

  • not being given extra responsibilities because you look too young, regardless of your actual age
  • being teased by co-workers because you are married to someone who is much older than you 
  • companies using social media algorithms to publish age-targeted job adverts, when the job could be done by any qualified applicant

Marriage and Civil Partnership

You can’t be discriminated against at work because you’re married or in a civil partnership. 

This is a narrow protection and doesn’t include long term partners or offer protection for single people. 

Examples might include: 

  • You are not invited on a work night out because you are married and your colleagues think you wouldn't be interested in socialising
  • You lose your job after getting married because your employer assumes you wouldn’t want to work nights any more
  • You are denied a residential training opportunity because your employer thinks you wouldn’t want to be away from your spouse for long

Combining characteristics

It’s quite common for cases to fall under more than one of these characteristics. 

For example: 

  • If you are Jewish, are you experiencing race discrimination or religious discrimination?
  • If are an Indian woman being treated unfairly, is it because of race or sex discrimination?
  • If you are a trans woman, is the unfair treatment because of your sex or your gender reassignment? 

In this case, you should mention all relevant characteristics until you get clearer evidence of which of the protected characteristics are relevant.

What if it’s not discrimination?

If it’s not discrimination, that doesn’t mean that the way you’re being treated is ok. There are plenty of cases brought to the Employment Tribunal that aren’t discrimination. If you’re worried about a situation at work, keep a note of what is happening and try to resolve the problem yourself if you can. You might then want to raise a formal grievance with your employer.

How we can help

Whatever stage you’re at when dealing with unfair treatment at work, Valla can help. Sign up for a free account for a secure, confidential place to organise your documents and work out what you need to do next.