It is important that employers understand the law surrounding discrimination. Failing to do so can easily create an unsafe and unfair atmosphere for your employees. It can also land you in a lot of trouble both legally and financially.

One of the most important aspects of discrimination law that employers need to be aware of is that of Protected Characteristics. 

Protected Characteristics are outlined in The Equality Act (2010) and they describe the specific categories of people who can not be discriminated against under the law. 

Keeping up with our fast-paced and ever-changing world can seem difficult. However, failing to understand the UK’s Equality Act 2010 and what classes as discrimination in employment can be very damaging. So it’s important to get it right, especially when it comes to these Protected Characteristics!

To help you out, we have created an easy guide to the topic so you can best understand Protected Characteristics, The Equality Act, and how everything applies to you.

We have done the reading so you don’t have to!

First up, let’s start with:

The Equality Act (2010)

The Equality Act is a piece of legislation that was debuted in 2010. It aimed to pull together over 100 different pieces of pre-existing government legislation. The legal framework outlines laws on discrimination and harassment in a way that is easy to digest and understand. 

Every instance of possible discrimination is covered in this one, all-encompassing piece of legislation. Employers, therefore, need to understand how it works and what it entails. It is the master document on discrimination. 

The Equality Act 2010 outlines different characteristics of employees that are specifically protected from discrimination at work. These are the aforementioned Protected Characteristics.

Note that in every bracket, the person who may be discriminated against doesn’t have to belong to that group for it to class as discrimination. If they are perceived to belong to that group or are associated with that group, they can claim to have been discriminated against on those grounds. 

Therefore, it is even more important that you know exactly what constitutes a Protected Characteristic before you make any potential mistakes or harmful errors.  

The Protected Characteristics covered by The Equality Act (2010) are as follows:


One of the most common forms of work-based discrimination is ageism. This is often because an employer or colleague will not realize that what they are doing is discrimination. They may only perceive things as a “joke” or common stereotype.

The Equality Act outlines that a person cannot be treated differently because they belong to, or appear to belong to, a particular age or range of ages.  

A common claim regarding age discrimination comes from older staff members who believe they have been overlooked for training or promotion by their superiors for younger colleagues. 


Someone can be qualified as having a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment or condition that has a substantial and long-term effect on their ability to undertake regular daily activities. 

Discrimination against disability is very common in the workplace and there are two types; direct and indirect discrimination. 

Direct disability discrimination occurs when an employer treats a disabled person “less favourably because they are disabled”. 

Indirect disability discrimination is slightly more complicated. It occurs when an employer, “applies a policy, criterion or practice which has the effect of putting a disabled person at a particular disadvantage as compared with non-disabled persons.”

It is important that employers avoid both practices of discrimination to keep a safe and healthy workplace.

If you would like to hear more about preventing disability discrimination, we have a sister site, Careers with Disabilities. This site is dedicated to helping inclusive employers hire disabled jobseekers and helping employers best understand how to be a Disability-Friendly employer. 

Gender Reassignment

If a person classifies themselves as, or is perceived by others as transgender, they are protected from gender reassignment discrimination. To be covered by the Equality Act, the person does not have to have any prerequisites in terms of the stage of their transition, such as surgical reassignments.

It is illegal discrimination if someone is treated differently because they 1) have changed their gender presentation or intend to do so, 2) are thought to be transgender by another person, or 3) they are connected to someone who is or thought to be transgender. 

Marriage and Civil Partnership

Regardless of the sex of the couple, those who are married or in a civil partnership are protected under the Equality Act. Furthermore, civil partnerships cannot be treated as less significant than a marriage.  

Employees cannot be treated differently and different decisions cannot be made about their employment because of their marital status or impending marital status. 

Pregnancy and Maternity

It is illegal under The Equal Act to discriminate against or treat unfavourably any woman who is pregnant, has just given birth, or is breastfeeding. 

Importantly, this is upheld whether the woman gives birth to a baby who is alive or dead.

(For more specific information about maternity in the workplace, during or post-pregnancy, go to our sister site Refreshing a Career.)


This section of the Equality Act refers to any person who belongs to, or who others perceive as belonging to, a group defined by their race, skin colour, nationality, citizenship, or ethnic or national origins.  

One group in the UK that falls under this term is the BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) community.

Employers must not take any action or decision based on an employee’s race, nationality, or ethnicity. They must treat all employees equally regardless of race, including any race they perceive an employee to be.

 For more information about BAME and the workplace, visit our dedicated page.  

Religion or Belief

The Equality Act defines this Protected Characteristic as a person who follows, believes in or practices a religious or philosophical belief. This includes if the person specifically does not follow or practice such a belief in their daily life. 

Employers cannot discriminate against someone because of their religion, the religion they are perceived to have, or for not having any religion at all. I.e. you cannot be discriminated against for being an Atheist. 

Employers can also not engage in discrimination by association when it comes to religion or beliefs. Therefore an employee cannot be discriminated against due to the religion or belief of a family member or spouse.


You cannot discriminate against someone due to their sex. For example, there is a history of women being overlooked for promotions due to their sex – this is discrimination and is illegal in the UK. 

Sex is a Protected Characteristic for all genders and does not just refer to women. Men and intersex people can also not be discriminated against due to their sex, and this applies to people of all ages.

To see why employers should specifically pay more careful attention to discrimination against women in the workplace, we have created a guide to the benefits of hiring and supporting women in your company.  

Sexual Orientation

Employers cannot make decisions in the workplace based on whether someone has an LGBTQIA+ identity or not.

People cannot be discriminated against because they are not heterosexual. Sexual orientation is a Protected Characteristic under law. Homophobia and transphobia aren’t opinions that can be protected, they are illegal forms of discrimination and have no place in work and employment.

See our dedicated guide for employers for more information on the LGBTQIA+ community and their safety in the workplace.

Protected Characteristics are something critically important for employers to get their heads around. Working fairly and ethically with all employees should be your top priority. Not knowing the rights of your employees is a great way to land yourself in a sticky situation with the law, and no one wants that. 

If you want to keep yourself and your company right, check out the specific guides we have mentioned in this guide for more information on each Protected Characteristic. You can also visit our support and resources page, or get in touch with us directly to find out more about being an inclusive employer.