Prevent discrimination and value diversity


The equality legislation sets out the grounds for unlawful discrimination, helps employers understand how to recruit and treat their staff fairly and promotes diversity in the workplace.

Unlawful discrimination discredits you as a business and can be very costly should an individual succeed in an unlawful discrimination claim against you at an industrial tribunal.

This guide tells you what you must know about the equality legislation. It also outlines how you can monitor and promote diversity in the workplace.

Common areas of equality law

It is unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of:

  • sex, including pregnancy and maternity
  • marital status, including civil partnership status
  • gender reassignment
  • disability
  • race
  • age
  • sexual orientation
  • religion/belief or political opinion
  • trade union membership or non-membership
  • status as a fixed-term or part-time worker

It’s also unlawful to discriminate by association in relation to sexual orientation, religion/belief and race, eg where someone discriminates against a person because that person’s brother is gay. Discrimination by association is a form of direct discrimination. Employees and job applicants are also protected against direct discrimination and harassment by reason of their association with a disabled person. However, it is advisable not to discriminate by association in relation to gender or age either.

The anti-discrimination legislation applies to:

  • job applicants
  • all employers in the private and public sectors, vocational training providers, trade unions, professional organisations, employer organisations, and trustees and managers of occupational pension schemes
  • employees, other workers – eg agency and casual workers – office holders, partners of firms and others
  • those engaged by a business in a contract for services, eg contractors and the self-employed

The types of discrimination

There are generally four types of discrimination:

  • direct discrimination – treating somebody less favourably on the grounds of their sex, race, etc or discrimination by association, ie treating somebody less favourably by reason of their association with a disabled person, person of a particular sexual orientation, etc
  • indirect discrimination – applying a rule which is applied equally to all individuals but which in practice disadvantages one sex, race, etc, and cannot be justified
  • harassment – see nibusinessinfo’s guide on bullying and harassment
  • victimisation – treating someone unfairly because, for example, they plan to raise a discrimination-related grievance or they support someone in raising a grievance

Find definitions of discrimination on the Equality Commission website.

The types of disability discrimination are slightly different – see the page in nibusinessinfo’s guide on discrimination against disabled people.

Justifying discrimination

It is not possible to justify direct discrimination (except for direct age discrimination – see the page in this guide on age discrimination), harassment and victimisation.

However, it may be possible to justify indirect discrimination in certain circumstances. For example, if an employer has a general rule that puts women or people with no religious belief at a disadvantage but the reason for applying that rule genuinely helps the employer to meet a legitimate aim, then indirect discrimination may be justified.

Where discrimination can occur

The equality legislation affects all areas of employment including:

  • recruitment
  • terms and conditions
  • promotions and transfers
  • the provision of training
  • the provision of benefits
  • dismissal
  • occupational pensions

Discrimination can also occur after employment, eg a former employee can bring a discrimination claim after they have left if they get an unfavourable reference because they threatened to bring a discrimination claim.

Industrial tribunal claims and discrimination

Any claim to an industrial or fair employment tribunal will generally have to be brought by the employee concerned within three months of the alleged discriminatory act occurring.

However, the tribunal would expect them to raise a formal grievance with you before bringing the claim. See nibusinessinfo’s guide on managing conflict. If they fail to do so, it may reduce the amount of any compensation it may award to the employee by up to 25 per cent.

See nibusinessinfo’s guide on handling grievances.

There are no length-of-service or age requirements in bringing a claim and claimants do not need to have left your employment.

For their claim to succeed, the claimant must prove the existence of facts from which the tribunal could conclude that you have committed an act of unlawful discrimination.

If the claimant is able to do this, you must prove to the tribunal that you did not commit the unlawful act.

If an industrial or fair employment tribunal does in fact find that unlawful discrimination has occurred, penalties can be high, since there is no cap on compensation.

It’s very important to remember that, as a business owner or manager, you may be held responsible for any discriminatory action by your employees if you cannot show that you took steps to try and prevent such action occurring – see nibusinessinfo’s pages in this guide on monitoring equality and diversity and promoting equality and diversity.

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