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- Discrimination laws apply to all businesses.
- It is unlawful to discriminate directly against anyone.
- It is unlawful to discriminate indirectly against anyone.
The Equality Act 2010
The Equality Act 2010 consolidated nine pieces of existing anti-discrimination legislation into one single Act. In doing so, it also simplifies and strengthens the existing legislation in order to reduce discrimination and inequality.
Under the Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against any employee or customer (that is to treat them less favourably) on the basis of nine protected characteristics:
- gender reassignment
- pregnancy and maternity
- marriage and civil partnership
- race - this includes ethnic or national origins, colour and nationality
- religion or belief
- sexual orientation
- age - this applies to those aged 18 or above.
It should be noted that amendments to the legislation clarify and strengthen the protection afforded to women undertaking breastfeeding under pregnancy and maternity, making it illegal to ask a woman to stop breastfeeding in a public place.
The protections afforded also apply where a person is unfairly treated because they are wrongly perceived to have a particular characteristic (or are treated as though they do), or because they associate with someone who has the characteristic. For example, the protection extends to the carer, partner or family of a person discriminated against.
As it applies to employees
You are required to treat all employees or job applicants the same. This covers all areas of employment, including recruitment, terms and conditions, promotion and transfers, training and development, and the dismissal process. This requirement applies to all employers regardless of the size of the business.
There are rules against employers asking job applicants disability-related questions and you are required to make reasonable adjustments to help disabled people fulfil the job they are employed to undertake or are applying for. For example, you would not be allowed to reject an applicant who uses a wheelchair for a receptionist position on the grounds that the reception desk was too high. Rather, you are required to make modifications to the desk to enable them to undertake this role.
You are required to protect your staff from harassment at all times. This means taking steps to protect staff from harassment by other staff members, suppliers and customers. Further, an employee may claim harassment even if they are not the person that is being harassed. This can happen, for example:
- where witnessing the harassment of another employee results in the creation of an intimidating environment for the witness
- where an employer has been informed that an employee has been harassed on two or more occasions by a third party, such as a customer or supplier, and does nothing to prevent further harassment
- where unwanted conduct relates to the sex of a person, even if it is not prompted by the complainant's sex.
Employers face unlimited fines under the legislation if they are found not to be protecting staff from harassment or treating them in a discriminatory manner. For more details and guidance on discrimination legislation, go to the Equality Act pages on the Gov.uk website.
As it applies to customers
As with employment, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of the nine protected characteristics when providing goods and services to customers, unless there is objective justification for doing so. This means that there have to be valid, justifiable reasons why a service cannot be provided to certain groups. For example, there may be medical reasons for not providing certain goods or services.
The Equality Act 2010 makes it easier for customers to require you to make reasonable adjustments in the way that you provide goods or service. For example, making sure that there are suitable options on the menu for people who do not eat certain foods for religious beliefs. The test will be whether the way that you provide goods or services places a person with a protected characteristic at a substantial disadvantage to other customers.
However, the Act does enable businesses to undertake positive action to target their goods, facilities or services to a particular group that is either disadvantaged or currently under-represented in their consumer base, or that has particular needs. For example, discounts could be given to disabled customers or their carers.
- Note: even if you do not allow guests to bring their pets to your premises, you must allow people who need to use assistance dogs (such as visually impaired people) to be accompanied by their dogs.
In 2012 the Government introduced age discrimination. This makes it illegal to provide a different product or service, charge a different price, or to apply different terms and conditions to any customer over 18 years old on the basis of age unless:
- there is an 'Objective Justification'. Objective Justification means that there is a valid objective reason for doing so (for example, charging different premiums for travel insurance could be justified on the basis of different levels of risk)
- the discrimination is beneficial: this means that offering discounts to people that allow them improved access to goods and services would be acceptable (for example, discounts for retired people would be acceptable as it would increase social inclusion).