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A summary of the Equality Act 2010, and what it means for your business

Last updated on March 28, 2023

Bringing together over 100 separate pieces of government legislation into one act, the Equality Act of 2010 represents a milestone in the ongoing process of creating a more fair and equal society. Many small businesses still lack the knowledge necessary to not only understand their legal obligations in regards to the Equality Act, but to take the positive steps within their business to promote equality, diversity and inclusion at its very core.

This article serves to provide a summary of the Equality Act 2010. We’ll dive into its protected characteristics as well as the main types of discrimination it covers. From a business perspective, we’ll also look at what the concept of public sector Equality Duty entails, whether any discrimination can ever be deemed lawful, and the actions that employers should be taking to get on the front foot when it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion.

What is the Equality Act 2010?

The Equality Act 2010 was a piece of legislation promised by the New Labour government in 2005, and subsequently passed into law five years later. It brings together well over 100 separate pieces of historical legislation into a single Act, the aim being to simplify the existing body of legislation governing equality in both places of work and wider society. It provides a legal framework to protect the rights of individual employees and citizens, in order to advance the equality of opportunities for everybody. 

In providing Britain with a series of laws to protect people from unfair treatment, it serves to promote a more fair and equal society.

Equality law in the UK

What are the protected characteristics of the Equality Act?

A central part of the Act defines, by law, characteristics which a person cannot be discriminated against. These are as follows:

  • Age

  • Disability

  • Gender reassignment

  • Race

  • Religion or belief

  • Sex

  • Sexual orientation

  • Marriage or civil partnership

  • Pregnancy and maternity

These are defined as the Equality Act’s protected characteristics.

What are the main types of discrimination covered by the Act?

There are five main types of discrimination covered by the Equality Act, all related to its protected characteristics.

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination occurs when a person is treated differently based on one or more of the protected characteristics listed above.

It can also apply when it comes to association, in other words a person is treated differently or unfairly because he/she/they are associated with a person with one or more protected characteristics, or even perception (when a person appears to have a protected characteristic). 

From an employer’s perspective, direct discrimination may refer to a failure to promote a person, dismissing them, or refusing to employ them in the first place, all based on one or more protected characteristics.

Indirect discrimination

This particular form of discrimination can be unintentional, so it is essential that businesses are aware of it. It may arise from a piece of company legislation or policy that appears to apply to all, but whereby it disadvantages a person or groups of persons based on a protected characteristic. 

Examples of indirect discrimination include policies regarding an employee’s age or height, or how long they must have been at the company before being eligible for a pay rise, bonus or promotion.

If no reasonable justification can be made for these particular company policies, then the organisation may be found to be discriminating against a particular group that finds it difficult or impossible to meet the requirements in question.


When an employer’s conduct or behaviour is unwanted and relates to one or more protected characteristics, this is classed as harassment under the Equality Act. Any conduct that has the effect or purpose of violating a person’s dignity, creating a hostile work environment, degrading, humiliating or offending them, is covered under the harassment category.

Examples of harassment include name calling, threats, jokes, exclusion, insults and unsolicited physical contact.


Where a person is treated differently because he/she/they have made an allegation of discrimination, this is classed as victimisation. This can be direct or indirect, for example where a person has supported or given evidence in relation to an allegation of discrimination on behalf of somebody else.

If an employee raised a personal grievance, or supported somebody else doing the same, and was ostracised from normal company operations as a result, this is victimisation. 

Fighting discrimination
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How does this Act differ from the Equal Pay Act 1970?

The Equal Pay Act, as its name suggests, was a law passed in 1970 giving both men and women the right to equal pay for equal work. It applies to like for like work, work rated as equivalent, and work of equal value. 

It is one of the 116 pieces of legislation that was consolidated into the 2010 Equality Act. It focuses solely on the issue of pay discrimination based on gender, rather than the other forms of discrimination detailed above. More information on pay equity, the law and your responsibilities as an employer can be found within this detailed Local Government Authority e-guide.

What is the public sector Equality Duty?

Coming into force in the UK in 2011, the public sector Equality Duty stipulates that public bodies must consider all individuals when carrying out their day-to-day work. This means that it is incorporated into the wider framework of the Equality Act, with a heightened responsibility on public bodies to lead and report by example.

It requires that public bodies uphold the highest possible standards when it comes to eliminating discrimination, advancing equality of opportunities, and fostering good relations between different individuals and teams within the organisation.

In addition, it requires that those public bodies publish relevant information that shows compliance with the Equality Duty when required to do so.

As far as businesses are concerned, can discrimination ever be deemed lawful?

Whilst it is very rare that any form of discrimination would be deemed lawful, there are situations where an employer could argue that it is justifiable.

This includes instances where the organisation in question can show that the policy or requirement it’s trying to implement applies equally to all. Additionally, if an organisation is trying to preserve its dignity or authenticity, it could be lawful to discriminate in certain circumstances.

Care must always be taken however, and sound legal advice should be sought where there is any doubt as to your legal obligations as an employer under the Equality Act.

Committed to upholding the protected characteristics

Is the employer liable in all cases of discrimination?

Every employer has a duty of care to their employees, therefore they are deemed to be responsible for the actions of those employees, even if they are unaware of certain goings on.

The employer must show that they have taken all reasonable steps - for example embedding diversity training or acting robustly in cases of discrimination when they arise - in order to not be held liable for the discriminatory actions of an employee or set of employees.

Further reading

PayFit has written an article about promoting gender equality in the workplace. It outlines the importance of embedding a culture of equality within an organisation.

The website offers an easily digestible set of guidelines for preventing other forms of discrimination, both in the recruitment process and within an organisation.

Finally, you can read about how we promote workplace equality here at PayFit.

And did you know that our innovative payroll software produces reports on a multitude of gender pay gap metrics? It has helped, and continues to help, thousands of small to mid-sized businesses identify and eliminate gender-based inequality in their remuneration policies. Why not see it for yourself?

PayFit's disclaimer

The information contained in this document is purely informative. It is not a substitute for legal advice from a legal professional.

PayFit does not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of this information and therefore cannot be held liable for any damages arising from your reading or use of this information. Remember to check the date of the last update.

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