Since October 2010, legislation in the UK has brought together most of the laws relating to discrimination into one Act. The grounds on which employers and others are forbidden to discriminate are known as “protected characteristics” and they are as follows:
- Gender reassignment;
- Marriage and civil partnership;
- Pregnancy and maternity;
- Religion or belief;
- Sex; and
- Sexual orientation.
Discrimination may be direct, by treating someone less favourably than another because of their protected characteristic (e.g. refusing to interview someone for a job because they are partially sighted) or indirect, by applying a provision, criterion or practice which their protected characteristic makes it harder for them to comply with (e.g. requiring all staff to work late three nights a week.) This may be harder for women to comply with than men because statistically, women are more likely to have childcare responsibility. It may be possible to justify indirect discrimination if it can be shown that the requirement is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim (e.g. in a hospital environment, requiring all staff to be “bare below the elbows”, may be harder for a Sikh to comply with because of their religious requirement to wear a kara, or bangle, which is an article of faith. Clearly, infection control in a hospital is a significant and legitimate aim, but the issue would be whether a complete ban on jewellery worn on the arms is a proportionate means of achieving it.)
It is also unlawful to victimise employees or workers who make or threaten allegations of discriminatory conduct, or support a colleague who has done so (e.g. a perverse refusal to promote an employee who acted as a companion to an employee raising a grievance about bullying on the grounds of their race). The final example of prohibited conduct is harassment, i.e. conduct which is unwanted and violates the other person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them (e.g. circulating unpleasant “jokes” about gay men via an office email system).