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Equality and discrimination

Creating fair workplaces

Fairness in the workplace is a vital part of a successful business or public body. It is supported by the law - the Equality Act 2010 - and also makes good business sense in running and developing an organisation.

The aim of the Equality Act is to improve equal job opportunities and fairness for employees and job applicants. Organisations should have policies in place so these outcomes happen and, just as importantly, to prevent discrimination.

Under the Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against people at work because of nine areas termed in the legislation as protected characteristics:

Discrimination and protected characteristics guidance video

This video explains the main types of discrimination (direct, indirect, harassment, victimisation) and introduces the nine protected characteristics.

These types of discrimination can apply differently depending on protected characteristics and circumstances. For a more detailed explanation read pdf  Equality and Discrimination: understand the basics [415kb] or view the following guidance video which explains the differences further.

View or download the set of three key Acas guides

Key points

  • If an employee believes they have been discriminated against, they will usually connect this to one or more of the nine protected characteristics listed above. But the way in which they have been allegedly discriminated against will determine which type or types of discrimination apply within their protected characteristic.
  • Employees who believe they have been subjected to discrimination, or who believe they have witnessed discrimination in the workplace, should be able to feel confident in raising the matter with their employer and assured it will be taken seriously.
  • The Equality Act makes certain exemptions and exceptions where in some limited situations treating employees and job applicants less favourably can be lawful. For example, in certain and rare circumstances, it may be lawful for an employer to specify that applicants for a job must have a particular protected characteristic under the Act.
  • Both employers and their employees can be held responsible and liable for their actions where they discriminate.
  • To effectively stay within the law, promote equality and prevent discrimination, an employer should have a policy in place so all employees know what is acceptable and expected of them as individuals and as part of the organisation.
  • There are different options including policy changes, disciplinary procedures and mediation for handling concerns or complaints about discrimination. An employer should be clear how it will handle such a matter. However, if the complaint is lodged by the employee as a grievance, the employer must follow certain minimum procedures set out in the Acas Code of Practice 1 - Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures.

Equality and discrimination top tips Displays a larger version of this image in a new browser windowEquality and discrimination top tips

View or share our Equality and discrimination 'top tips' which outline the basic points you must know to comply with the law.

You can also sign up to the free Acas e-newsletter for more top tips and guidance updates.


Business case for encouraging equality and preventing discrimination

  • Encouraging greater awareness and understanding of the different protected characteristics, alongside tackling discrimination, can help to reduce the chance of complaints, disciplinary action or an employment tribunal claim - and avoid the costs and disruption to the organisation.
  • Improve team spirit - an employee or groups of employees who are being discriminated against are likely to be unhappy, less productive and de-motivated, and this can have a negative impact on the whole workforce.
  • Attract, motivate and retain staff, and enhance an organisation's reputation as an employer. If staff who have been discriminated against feel  undervalued or 'forced out' and leave, the organisation will run up the costs of recruiting, training and settling in new staff when its reputation as both a business and employer may be damaged.

Additional factors organisations should take into account include.

  • The UK workforce is changing. For example, more people are continuing to work instead of retiring, women now make up almost half the workforce, around one in ten of the UK working age population are from an ethnic minority, while one in four primary school children are from an ethnic minority.
  • Having staff at all levels from a wide range of backgrounds and skills can help develop a working environment producing ideas and solutions that might not come from a smaller array of diverse groups. A diverse workforce can also help an organisation better understand and meet diverse customer expectations.

Business case report

The Department for Business Innovation and Skills has produced a report on the Business Case for Equality and Diversity available from GOV.UK - The business case for equality and diversity: a survey of the academic literature.

The report says the firms that have benefited from equality and diversity have done so by making them part of their business strategy, instead of treating them separately.

Evidence, though, shows there is not a "one-size-fits all" approach. Businesses and organisations know their own markets and sectors best, and should address equality and diversity with that in mind. That does not mean they can ignore equality and diversity if they think they are not in their business interests, as employers must still comply with the law.

The report suggests businesses may be overlooking potential advantages. For example, having staff with roots in other countries and cultures can help a firm build relations with a wider range of customers, and market its products or services more appropriately and sensitively. A driver for some firms is in enhancing a brand's reputation.

Benefits of promoting equality and diversity

A better chance:

  • that the best candidate from the widest possible pool of applicants is selected for the job
  • of reasonable adjustments for the disabled at work to make sure they are not disadvantaged
  • of a workplace which values the differences between staff and which expects an environment of fairness, dignity and respect
  • of being given the opportunity for work-life balance - for example, through working flexible hours or working from home
  • of getting training, career development and promotion opportunities based on merit - skills, knowledge and experience relevant to the role.

Acas training and other ways that Acas can help

Acas offers a range of advice and support for businesses and individuals dealing with equality and discrimination issues.

Try Acas Learning OnLine, Helpline Online, view our range of Training or visit 'Equality and diversity: how Acas can help' designed for employers to improve practices and embed new ways of working.

Featured training - Is it OK to ask? A new practical scenario-based diversity course

This course focuses on some of the common and often complex situations that employers may face when managing a diverse workforce.

Find out more by visiting the 'Is it OK to ask?' page.

View Acas training on equality and diversity and discrimination on our Equality, diversity and the Equality Act 2010 events page. You can also use our Helpline Online tool which can help answer any questions you have on equality or other management and employment relations areas.

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