The Equality Act 2010: protected characteristics and types of discrimination

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The Equality Act, which came into force on 1 October 2010, replaced previous anti-discrimination legislation such as the Race Relations Act of 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. Although your responsibilities under the Act are largely the same as they always have been, there are some changes that will affect businesses, including the introduction of ‘protected characteristics’ and multiple forms of discrimination.

The Equality Act covers exactly the same groups of individuals that were protected by the previous legislation. However, the headings of age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity are now to be known as ‘protected characteristics’.

The average discrimination awards are increasing year on year and in the time from April 2015 to March 2016 83,031 tribunal applications were made. This compares to 61,308 the previous year, 105,803 in 2013/14 and 191,541 claims in 2012/13 which was the last full year prior to fees being introduced.

Here at the Forum of Private Business we advise all our members to get the right insurance cover and take advice before acting – for more details call us today on 01565 626001

Protected Characteristics

Each characteristic is addressed in the Act in summary as follows:


The Act protects employees of all ages but remains the only protected characteristic that allows employers to justify direct discrimination, i.e. if an employer can demonstrate that to apply different treatment because of someone’s age constitutes a proportionate means of meeting a legitimate aim, then no discrimination will have taken place.


The Act includes a new protection arising from disability and now states that it is unfair to treat a disabled person unfavourably because of something connected with a disability. An example provided is the tendency to make spelling mistakes arising from dyslexia. Also, indirect discrimination now covers disabled people, which means that a job applicant could claim that a particular rule or requirement disadvantages people with that disability.
The Act includes a provision which makes it unlawful, with limited exceptions, for employers to ask about a candidate’s health before offering them work. Find out more about key employment changes here.

Gender Reassignment

It is discriminatory to treat people who propose to start to or have completed a process to change their genderless favourably, for example, because they are absent from work for this reason.

Marriage & Civil Partnership

The Act continues to protect employees who are married or in a civil partnership. Single people are however not protected by the legislation against discrimination.

Pregnancy & Maternity

The Act continues to protect women against discrimination because they are pregnant or have given birth.


The Act continues to protect people against discrimination on the grounds of their race, which includes colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin.

Religion or Belief

The Act continues to protect people against discrimination on the grounds of their religion or their belief, including a lack of any belief.


The Act continues to protect both men and women against discrimination on the grounds of their sex, for example paying women less than men for doing the same job.

Sexual Orientation

The Act continues to protect bisexual, gay, heterosexual and lesbian people from discrimination on the grounds of their sexual orientation.

Types of discrimination

The 2010 Act also extends some of these protections to characteristics that previously were not covered by equality legislation. Employers and business owners now need to be aware of the seven different types of discrimination under the new legislation.

These are:

  • Direct discrimination – where someone is treated less favourably than another person because of a protected characteristic
  • Associative discrimination – this is direct discrimination against someone because they are associated with another person who possesses a protected characteristic
  • Discrimination by perception – this is direct discrimination against someone because others think that they possess a particular protected characteristic. They do not necessarily have to possess the characteristic, just be perceived to.
  • Indirect discrimination – this can occur when you have a rule or policy that applies to everyone but disadvantages a person with a particular protected characteristic
  • Harassment – this is behaviour that is deemed offensive by the recipient. Employees can now complain of the behaviour they find offensive even if it is not directed at them.
  • Victimisation – this occurs when someone is treated badly because they have made or supported a complaint or grievance under this legislation.

Members of the Forum can call 01565 626001 to speak to our membership team on any area of employment law.

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