Guidance for businesses

Published: 19 February 2019

Last updated: 19 February 2019

What countries does this apply to?

  • England
  • Scotland
  • Wales

This guide tells you how you can avoid all the different types of unlawful discrimination. It gives you an overview of how equality law applies to all businesses and looks at particular issues that businesses providing goods, facilities or services in different sectors may need to think about when considering what equality law requires them to do.

If your business is not covered in this guide, it does not mean that equality law does not apply to you. Reading this guide will help you and your business. Use it to work out how to apply what it says to your business. 

Equality law applies to you regardless of:

  • whether you give the service for free (for example, giving someone information about your paid-for services) or if you charge for it
  • whether you are set up as a sole trader, a partnership, a limited company or any other legal structure
  • the size of your business

Equality law affects everyone responsible for running your business or who might do something on its behalf, including staff if you have them.

Protected characteristics

Make sure you know what is meant by:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • pregnancy and maternity (which includes breastfeeding)
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

Then you will know how you fit into each of these protected characteristics.

Examples of unlawful discrimination

Unlawful discrimination can take a number of different forms. 

You must not treat a person worse because of one or more of their protected characteristics. This is called direct discrimination

Examples of direct discrimination:

  • A shop will not serve someone because of their ethnic origin

  • A nightclub charges a higher price for entry to a man because of their sex where the service provided to a woman is otherwise exactly the same

You must not do something to someone which has (or would have) a worse impact on them and on other people who share a particular protected characteristic than on people who do not share that characteristic. Unless you can show that what you have done is objectively justified, this will be what is called indirect discrimination. ‘Doing something’ can include making a decision, or applying a rule or way of doing things.

Example of indirect discrimination:

A shop decides to apply a ‘no hats or other headgear’ rule to customers. If this rule is applied in exactly the same way to every customer, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and Rastafarians who may cover their heads as part of their religion will not be able to use the shop. Unless the shop can objectively justify using the rule, this will be indirect discrimination.

You must not treat a disabled person unfavourably because of something connected to their disability where you cannot show that what you are doing is objectively justified. This only applies if you know or could reasonably have been expected to know that the person is a disabled person. This is called discrimination arising from disability.

Example of discrimination arising from disability:

A shop has a ‘no dogs’ rule. If the shop bars a disabled person who uses an assistance dog, not because of their disability but because they have a dog with them, this would be discrimination arising from disability unless the shop can objectively justify what it has done.

You must not treat a person worse than someone else because they are associated with a person who has a protected characteristic.

Example of discrimination by association:

A restaurant refuses to serve a customer who has a disabled child with them, but serves other parents who have their children with them.

You must not treat a person worse because you incorrectly think they have a protected characteristic (perception).


A member of staff in a pub tells a woman that they will not serve her because they think she is a transsexual person. It is likely the woman has been unlawfully discriminated against because of gender reassignment, even though she is not a transsexual person.

You must not treat a person badly or victimise them because they have complained about discrimination or helped someone else complain or done anything to uphold their own or someone else’s equality law rights.

Example of victimisation:

A customer complains that a member of staff in a café told her she was not allowed to breastfeed her baby except in the toilets. Because she has complained, the café tells her she is barred altogether. This is almost certainly victimisation.

 You must not harass a person.

Example of harassment:

A member of staff in a nightclub is verbally abusive to a customer in relation to a protected characteristic.

 Even where the behaviour does not come within the equality law definition of harassment, for example, because it is related to religion or belief or sexual orientation, it is likely still to be unlawful direct discrimination because you are giving the service to the person on worse terms than you would give someone who did not have the same protected characteristic.

In addition, to make sure that disabled people are able to use your services as far as is reasonable to the same standard as non-disabled people, you must make reasonable adjustments. You cannot wait until a disabled person wants to use your services, but must think in advance about what people with a range of impairments might reasonably need, such as people who have a visual impairment, a hearing impairment, a mobility impairment or a learning disability.


A bank branch has a flight of steps up to its entrance but it is not permitted by the local authority to build a ramp because this would block the pavement. The bank installs a platform lift so that disabled people with mobility impairments can get into the branch. This is a reasonable adjustment. 

Equality good practice

Equality good practice can win you new customers or clients, or help you to keep existing ones, because you are showing that you aim to treat everyone well. It can also help you to avoid court claims, because you have shown that you have done everything you could be expected to do to make sure unlawful discrimination does not happen.

This guide tells you what equality law says you must and must not do to avoid unlawful discrimination.

If you want to be sure you are doing this, it is a good idea to:

  • use an equality policy to help you check that you have thought about equality in the way you plan what you do and how you do it
  • give equality training to everyone in your business who deals with customers or clients, to make sure they know the right and wrong ways to behave.

You may want to target people with a particular protected characteristic through positive action if they are currently missing out on your services. To do this, you must show that people with a particular protected characteristic have a different need or a track record of disadvantage or low participation in an activity.

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Contact Acas for further information

If you are involved in an employment dispute or are seeking information on employment rights and rules, you can contact the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas):

Freephone: 0300 123 1100 (8am to 6pm Monday to Friday)

Text Relay service: 18001 0300 123 1100.

Visit the Acas website
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0300 123 1100

Advice and support

If you think you might have been treated unfairly and want further advice, you can contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS).

The EASS is an independent advice service, not operated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Phone: 0808 800 0082

Or email using the contact form on the EASS website.
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Call the EASS on:

0808 800 0082