Discrimination law (Equality Act 2010) protects people against discrimination at work.

It’s important to understand what the law says about discrimination, so everyone knows their rights and responsibilities.

What discrimination means

Discrimination means treating someone ‘less favourably’ than someone else, because of:

gender reassignment
marriage and civil partnership
pregnancy and maternity
religion or belief
sexual orientation
These are called ‘protected characteristics’.

Less favourable treatment can be anything that puts someone with a protected characteristic at a disadvantage, compared to someone who does not have that characteristic.

There’s no legal definition of ‘putting someone at a disadvantage’. But it might include:

excluding someone from opportunities or benefits
making it harder for someone to do their job
causing someone emotional distress
causing someone financial loss
It can still be discrimination even if the less favourable treatment was not intended.

When less favourable treatment might not be discrimination

Sometimes, less favourable treatment can be justified and is not unlawful discrimination.

For example, an employer might be able to use:

positive action – to help a disadvantaged or underrepresented group
objective justification – when an employer can prove a legitimate need for less favourable treatment
a disability exception – to specifically recruit a disabled person without the risk of disability discrimination
occupational requirement – recruiting someone with a certain protected characteristic to do a particular job

Find out more about:

using protected characteristics to make decisions
using protected characteristics in recruitment

Who is protected by discrimination law

The Equality Act 2010 protects the following people against discrimination:

employees and workers
contractors and self-employed people hired to personally do the work
job applicants
former employees – usually around providing references
Who is responsible for discrimination
The main responsibility for discrimination at work lies with employers.

By law, all employers must:

make sure they do not unfairly discriminate in any aspect of work
take steps to prevent discrimination
do all they reasonably can to protect people from discrimination by others
look after the wellbeing of their employees – this is called a ‘duty of care’
Not doing these things could cause harm and distress, and could result in discrimination complaints and employment tribunal claims.

Employers can be held responsible for the actions of employees. This is called ‘vicarious liability’.

Anyone who discriminates against someone at work is also responsible for their own actions. Discrimination complaints and employment tribunal claims can be made against individuals as well as employers.

Find out more about:

vicarious liability
preventing discrimination

Types of discrimination

Discrimination includes:

direct discrimination – less favourable treatment directly because of a protected characteristic
indirect discrimination – when everyone’s treated the same but people with a protected characteristic are put at a disadvantage
harassment – unwanted or offensive behaviour related to a protected characteristic
victimisation – negative treatment as a result of being involved with a discrimination or harassment complaint

Advice on protected characteristics
Find out more about:

age discrimination
disability discrimination
pregnancy and maternity discrimination
race discrimination
religion or belief discrimination

We’re updating our advice on gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, sex, and sexual orientation.

Our general discrimination advice is relevant for all protected characteristics.

Get more advice and support
If you have any questions about discrimination, you can contact the:

Acas helpline
Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS)
You can find more detailed legal guidance on the Equality Act 2010 in the Employment: Statutory Code of Practice from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.