Core guidance: Managing workers

Are you an employer?

This guide calls you an employer if you are the person making decisions about what happens in a work situation. Most situations are covered, even if you don’t give your worker a written contract of employment or if they are a contract worker rather than a worker employed by you. Other types of worker such as trainees, apprentices and business partners are also covered. Sometimes, equality law only applies to particular types of worker, such as employees, and we make it clear if this is the case.

Protected characteristics

Make sure you know what is meant by:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

These are known as protected characteristics.

View a detailed list of the protected characteristics

What is unlawful discrimination?

Unlawful discrimination can take a number of different forms: 

You must not treat a worker worse than another worker because of a protected characteristic (this is called direct discrimination).

For example:

An employer refuses to give a worker access to facilities because of a protected characteristic.

In the case of women who are pregnant or on maternity leave, the test is not whether the woman is treated worse than someone else, but whether she is treated unfavourably from the time she tells you she is pregnant to the end of her maternity leave (equality law calls this the protected period) because of her pregnancy or a related illness or because of maternity leave.

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

For example: 

An employer decides to apply a ‘no hats or other headgear’ rule to staff. If this rule is applied in exactly the same way to every member of staff, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and Rastafarians who may cover their heads as part of their religion will not be able to meet the requirements of the dress code and may face disciplinary action as a result. Unless the employer can objectively justify using the rule, this will be indirect discrimination.

You must not treat a disabled worker 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 worker is a disabled person. This is called discrimination arising from disability.

For example: 

An employer imposes a ‘no beards’ rule as part of a dress code and tells staff they will be disciplined if they do not shave. An employee is a disabled person who has a skin condition that makes shaving very painful. They have been treated unfavourably (threatened with disciplinary action) because of something arising from their disability (their inability to shave). Unless the employer can objectively justify the requirement, this may well be discrimination arising from disability if they knew, or could reasonably be expected to know, that the employee had this condition. It may also be a failure to make a reasonable adjustment.

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

For example: 

A manager gives the father of a disabled child a bad report because they disapprove of the man’s requests to attend his child’s hospital appointments.

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

For example:

An employer incorrectly thinks one of their workers is gay. They tell them they must change their clothes in a dusty stock room rather than in the communal changing area. This is likely to be discrimination because of sexual orientation based on the employer’s perception, even though the worker is not gay (if the worker is gay, it would almost certainly be direct discrimination).

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

For example: 

A worker helps a colleague with a sexual harassment claim against another worker. Because of this, their manager marks them down at their annual performance review, commenting that they are ‘not very loyal’. This would almost certainly be victimisation.

You must not harass a worker.

For example: 

A transsexual woman is subjected to offensive ‘banter’ at work, relating to her gender reassignment. This creates a hostile and offensive atmosphere for her, and is likely to be harassment.

You can read more about preventing and dealing with harassment at pages [n to n].

In addition, to make sure that a disabled worker has the same access, as far as is reasonable, to everything that is involved in doing a job as a non-disabled worker, you must make reasonable adjustments.

For example: 

An employer usually gives workers a written copy of their draft annual appraisal and gives them a morning to read the draft and to send any comments to their line manager. The employer arranges for a worker with severe dyslexia to meet their line manager instead and talk through the draft and provide comments. This is likely to be a reasonable adjustment for the employer to make.

You can read more about making reasonable adjustments to remove barriers for disabled people.

In When a worker becomes a disabled person, we look particularly at the process you should follow if one of your existing workers becomes a disabled person or if the impact of a disabled person’s impairment changes. 

More information

back to top