Discrimination against employees is covered by the Equality Act 2010. As well as undermining employee morale, illegal discrimination can lead to employee grievances. If an employee makes a discrimination claim to an employment tribunal, your business could face substantial damages as well as the costs and distraction of the case.
Discrimination law has long applied to both racial discrimination and sex discrimination. These include discrimination on the grounds of colour or ethnic origin, gender, marital status (including civil partnership), pregnancy or childbirth.
More recently, discrimination law has been extended to include age discrimination and discrimination against disabled people both in terms of employment and as customers. Discrimination on the grounds of an employee's religious or philosophical beliefs is also illegal, as is discrimination against those undergoing gender reassignment.
There are a few narrow exceptions when discrimination is permitted: for example, to encourage under-represented groups into the workforce, or where employing someone of a particular race or gender is a genuine occupational qualification. If you feel you need to discriminate, you should take advice to ensure that you are not discriminating illegally.
Types of discrimination
Direct discrimination occurs when you discriminate against someone because of who they are: for example, if you decide not to recruit someone because of their skin colour. You must also avoid indirect discrimination, which involves applying an unnecessary condition that is likely to discriminate: for example, insisting that all job applicants must be at least six feet tall (and so more likely to be male).
As an employer, you can be held responsible for discrimination by your employees: for example, if an employee is abused or harassed with racist or sexist jokes.
Dealing with discrimination
Discrimination can occur at every stage of employment: recruitment, selecting employees for training or promotion, applying disciplinary procedures, dismissal and redundancy. To avoid illegal discrimination, you need to ensure that your procedures and policies are objective, focusing on work performance and the requirements of the job.
Under the Equality Act, you may need to make reasonable adjustments to enable disabled employees to work: for example, providing appropriate equipment or altering working practices.
You should publicise a code of practice dealing with discrimination, making it clear to everyone that discrimination is unacceptable and will be treated as a disciplinary offence. Managers and employees may need training to help them act fairly.
Treat any allegations of discrimination or harassment seriously. Investigate thoroughly and ensure that you follow your grievance procedure.
Reviewed by Geraint Probert of Guildhall Chambers
Browse topics: Employment law