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The Equality Act – how it applies to discrimination at work

The law on discrimination has always been a complicated area for employers to navigate. Provisions were previously covered by a number of different acts. These included :-

  • Sex Discrimination Act 1975
  • Race Relations Acts 1976;
  • Disability Discrimination Act 1995

There has now been an attempt to harmonise the legislation and a result of that the Equality Act 2010 was brought in, the majority of which became enforceable on 1 October 2010. 

Whilst it has outlined the law in one statute, it remains that this is a complicated issue.

Employers should ensure that they have appropriate equality procedures in place and/or monitoring systems to identify any discrimination within the work place and deal with it accordingly. There are different types of discrimination set out in the Equality Act 2010 as follows:

  • Direct discrimination – this occurs when a person is treated less favourably than another because of a protected characteristic, normally age, race, sex, religious belief, sexual orientation or disability. The onus would fall on the employee to establish a comparator who is treated less favourably either a real comparator or notably a colleague or a hypothetical comparator.
  • Indirect discrimination – this occurs when the employer implements an act, decision or policy which whilst it is not intended to treat anyone less favourably, has in practice the effect of disadvantaging a group of people with a protected characteristic. One such example would be requirement to work full time which could disadvantage women as a group since they are more likely to have childcare or domestic responsibility. Any measure would have to be objectively justified by the employer.
  • Harassment – the Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to harass an employee because of a protected characteristic, as outlined above. Harassment is defined as an unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect via either violating a person dignity, or creating an intimidating hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

For the purpose of the Equality Act 2010 this has to relate to a protected characteristic. This is not the case for a County Court action for harassment under the protection from Harassment Act 1997.

  • Victimisation – the Equality Act 2010 protects an employee from detrimental treatment because they have done a protected act. They include points such as bringing proceedings under the Equality Act.

The provisions of the Equality Act 2010 relate to full time employees, part-time employees, contractors, partners, and other office holders within the business. The Act goes further and also applies to job applications and service providers.

Employers are liable for the acts of their employees in the course of employment so can be held vicariously liable for claims. There is a statutory defence available to an employer if they can show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent the employee from doing the act complained of. To that end, it is crucial that employers have appropriate policies and procedures in place and monitor such actions. This could be determinative to a tribunal should a claim be brought at a later date.

In addition, employees who are guilty of carrying out discriminatory acts may incur personal liability, and it is a commonplace when bringing a claim for discrimination to lodge it against the company as well the individuals personally.

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