What Do Employers Need to Know About Protected Characteristics? 

In the United Kingdom, the Equality Act 2010 protects aspects of a person’s identity that make them whom they are, and that may be vulnerable to discrimination. These aspects are known as protected characteristics. The law defines nine protected characteristics:

  1. Age
  2. Disability
  3. Gender reassignment
  4. Marriage and civil partnership
  5. Pregnancy and maternity
  6. Race
  7. Religion or belief
  8. Sex
  9. Sexual orientation


Age discrimination can take place directly or indirectly. It happens when workers are treated unfairly due to how old or young they are. Here are some examples of age discrimination:

  • Using inadequate language to refer to staff members in a specific age group.
  • Treating younger and older employees differently from each other. 
  • Preventing career opportunities, imposing restrictions or dismissing staff based on their age.


Individuals with a substantial or long-term disability that affects their ability to carry out daily activities are protected by the Equality Act 2010. While some impairments are easily identifiable, you might find it difficult to establish whether or not a person has a disability. For instance, there are many non-visible disabilities such as autism, dementia or brain injury. 

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers must make reasonable adjustments to remove barriers caused by a disability.

Gender reassignment

It is illegal to discriminate individuals who are transgender or know someone who is. It is vital to keep in mind that a person is not required to undergo surgery or treatment to change their gender. Here are some examples of gender reassignment discrimination:

  • Reassigning staff members a new role to remove them from public view.
  • Using inadequate language to describe or refer to a transgender person.
  • Having policies that put transgender people at disadvantage.

You can find a wealth of information and advice on gender equality and inclusivity on Aspiring to Include’s website.

Marriage or civil partnership

Examples of this discrimination include:

  • Having policies and procedures in place that put people who are married or are in a civil partnership at disadvantage. 
  • Reducing an employee’s working hours, assuming they might need to spend more time with their family without that being requested.

Pregnancy and maternity

The Equality Act 2010 defines two kinds of discrimination regarding pregnancy and maternity:

  • Unfavourable treatment – when employees are put at a disadvantage. 
  • Victimisation – when employees are treated unfairly because they have made or supported an allegation against discrimination.


Race discrimination takes place when individuals are treated unfairly because of their race, colour, or nationality and can occur in two ways:

  • Directly – for instance, when an applicant is rejected because of their race instead of their skills and abilities.
  • Indirectly – when policies and procedures put a group of people of the same nationality, race or colour at disadvantage. For example, an organisation requiring qualifications that are only available in the United Kingdom is discriminatory against candidates from other countries.

Religion or faith

Examples of religion or faith discrimination include:

  • Enforcing working hours that are in contrast with some cultural aspects of an individual’s life, such as going to the mosque.
  • Imposing dress code policies that are not in line with specific religions.


The Equality Act 2010 protects people from stereotypes based on their sex. Examples of prejudices and stereotypes can be:

  • Providing training and career opportunities for specific roles to male or female workers only.
  • Asking women inadequate questions about pregnancy in view of a career opportunity.
  • Rejecting a male applicant for a marketing role at a cosmetic company. (this needs further explaining, it could read as if we are stereotyping men and women.) 

Sexual orientation

The law protects people who identify as:

  • Bisexual.
  • Gay.
  • Heterosexual.
  • Asexual

Some examples of sexual orientation discrimination include:

  • Harassing or offending people based on their gender identity.
  • Having policies and procedures in place that put groups of people of the same sexual identity at a disadvantage.

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