The Equality Act 2010: what does it mean in practice?

31 July 2010
The Equality Act 2010: what does it mean in practice?

If you've tried reading the Equality Act (or even the supplementary guidance), it's a hefty bit of paperwork. Here, we run you through a bite-sized summary of what's going on and highlight key areas for you to look at.

What is the Equality Act 2010?
The new Equality Act is like a 'one-stop shop' for anti-discrimination legislation in England. Whereas before there were lots of different laws and regulations (such as the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003) - this is all rolled together into one single act. And this is what the Equality Act is. View the full list of legislation replaced by the Equality Act

Who does it apply to?
All organisations. It doesn’t matter how small you are. If you're a manager, it protects staff and volunteers. If you provide services to the public, it protects your service users. If you have members, it protects them too.

When was the Equality Act enacted?
The Equality Act was passed in April 2010, but it won't actually take effect until 1 October 2010, which is when the first lot of measures come into force.

So not all of its provisions come into force in October?
No. There are elements which will be introduced after, though the lion-share of what’s new happens in October. Find out which measures don't come into force in October 2010

Who does the Equality Act 2010 protect?
The act protects people who may be discriminated against on the grounds of:

  • age – this includes people of all ages. 
  • disability – can be physical or mental. Only individuals with disabilities are protected (not those without) to compensate for the substantial disadvantages individuals with disabilities can otherwise experience.
  • gender reassignment – includes transsexuals (people changing their gender permanently) but not transgender people (eg cross-dressers).
  • marriage/civil partnership – but note, this doesn’t protect singles.
  • pregnancy/maternity
  • race – this includes colour (eg black), nationality (eg Polish) and ethnic origin (eg Jew).
  • religion/belief – note that a lack of religion/belief is protected, but political belief is not.
  • sex –ie. men and women
  • sexual orientation – ie. straight, gay and bisexual people.


What does the Equality Act 2010 protect people from?

  • direct discrimination –basically, treating someone worse because of some characteristic they have (such as being a woman, being gay, being pregnant). Direct discrimination can also include less favourable treatment based on how someone appears (“perceptual discrimination”) or who they associate with (“associative discrimination”). There will also be protection from ‘dual discrimination’ which is where you treat someone worse because of a combination of characteristics they have (eg being a black man).
  • indirect discrimination – this is where you apply rules and practices equally to everyone but a particular group would be disadvantaged by them (eg obligatory Sunday working for Christians). You have to have a really strong reason to justify indirect discrimination – and money-saving is not usually good enough by itself.
  • harassment – this means creating an environment which is degrading, humiliating or offensive for someone because of their protected characteristic. This can be through name-calling, isolating them, pinning up pictures etc. Employers are also responsible for the harassment workers get from customers and service users (eg reception staff receiving sexist abuse) – known as harassment by a third party.
  • victimisation – this means treating someone less well because they’ve made a discrimination complaint against you.
  • discrimination arising from disability – this is where you treat an individual with disabilities worse because of something arising from their disability (eg not allowing flexible working where an individual struggles with their condition in the mornings). Again, you’ll need a strong objective justification for your actions. If in doubt, ask for advice.


What should I look out for?
Headline changes include:

  • pre-employment checks and health-related questions: you should think twice before asking any health questions/surveys of applicants before they’re offered a job – since the circumstances in which these can be used is severely restricted. Also avoid asking questions around previous absence records. If in doubt, ask for advice.
  • duty to make reasonable adjustments: previously organisations had to provide reasonable adjustments to accommodate individuals with disabilities. Now this includes a duty to offer auxiliary aids (eg special software) to support individuals with disabilities.
  • pay secrecy clauses: you will not be able to enforce a pay secrecy clause if an employee is making enquiries to find out if there is a link between their pay and their protected characteristic.
  • extended protection for different groups: the Acas guidance has a table on p.4 (.PDF) which summarises how different groups of employees are protected by the act. A similar table is available in the Government Equalities Office guides for service providers to show how service users are protected.


What can I do?

Unlike some areas of practice, discrimination is a huge topic and doesn’t lend itself well to simply trying to follow the law. You’re best to implement good practice. In the first instance, you can do this by conducting an equality audit across your organisation and from this, assemble an action plan (and a staff forum) to drive forward improvements.


In terms of paperwork and practice, the following are good to have in place:

  • Ensure you have policies for all key HR areas and that these are easily accessible to everybody. These include recruitment, flexible working, annual leave, pay & benefits, training, redundancy & dismissal – and equal opportunities/dignity at work. These will show how you treat staff and service users consistently.
  • Review policies and practices to ensure that it’s clear and transparent how everyone coming into contact with the organisation is treated fairly. Try and spot potential areas of discrimination – direct and indirect (taking into account the definitions above).
  • Scrutinise your use of pre-employment checks and absence questioning. 
  • Pay particular attention to any use of ‘genuine occupational requirements’ (which is where you ask for that someone to be of a particular background or characteristic for the job eg. religion). Ask for advice if you’re not sure.
  • Be pro-active in making reasonable adjustments for individuals with disabilities or those caring for individuals with disabilities. Consider also physical barriers and aids which would help alleviate disadvantage and offer support wherever this may be applicable (eg. in recruitment, day-to-day work and training opportunities, services).
  • Be pro-active in accommodating other groups (eg religious staff, mothers) who may be disadvantaged by your standard practices. If you're not sure, ask for advice.
  • Have clear processes that are communicated for problem-solving and issue-raising.
  • Train your staff to ensure they understand, practise and enforce your policies internally with each other, and externally with the public. 
  • Try to monitor diversity in your workforce and recruitment processes at all levels of the organisation and spot under-representation at different levels. You can also monitor the people accessing your services.
  • Try to think how you can address under-representation through positive action (eg training days, open days, work experience opportunities) to give under-represented groups greater opportunities to be selected against equally strong candidates from other groups. Be careful not to fall into positive discrimination – which is where you select weaker candidates for recruitment or promotion because of their protected characteristic. This is still illegal.
  • Involve your staff – they’ll be a great measure for how you’re doing and what you could be doing better.

For further help and support:

Browse the diversity & equality section of HRBird for practical tools and guidance.


The following supporting guidance is a recommended read:


The Equality Act: what does it mean for employers? from Acas

Extensive guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission

click here


We also liked:

Equality Act 2010 - TUC briefing for affiliates

Equality Act 2010 - client information sheet from Blake Lapthorn solicitors

click here

Please note that HRBird by its very nature offers general information. If you're looking for advice specific to your situation, speak to an HR professional or solicitor. 
Got a question on staff or volunteers? To submit an anonymous query for the HRBird blog, contact us.

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