What are the Protected Characteristics?

Balal Qaiser
Employment Law Solicitor

The Protected Characteristics are set out in the Equality Act 2010. This Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone because they fall under one or more of these characteristics.

People with a protected characteristic can be discriminated against in different ways and while it’s not always intentional, it’s still against the law.

The Act also protects people from associative discrimination or discrimination by association. For example, not hiring a mother because she has a disabled child is discrimination by association and against the law.

If you think you’ve been discriminated against at work because of a protected characteristic, get in touch with our Employment Solicitors for confidential legal advice.

Call us on 0808 258 3531 or request a callback

There are 9 protected characteristics in total. Let’s go through them with some examples.


Age discrimination is when you’re treated differently because of your age or assumed age. In the workplace, it might be that you’re overlooked for a promotion because your employer thinks you’re too young for one, or you’re refused training for a new piece of software because you’re seen as too old. An employer can also unlawfully discriminate if it tries to force an employee to retire without an objective justification. Find out more about age discrimination.


The Act protects people with a disability from being discriminated against when applying for a job, during their employment and when their employment ends. The Act defines disability as a physical or mental impairment which has a ‘substantial and long-term adverse effect’ on a person’s ability to carry out normal everyday activities.

An example at work is an employer failing to make reasonable adjustments such as an accessible entrance for a wheelchair user or dismissing an employee because of their disability related sickness absence. Find out more about disability discrimination.

Gender Reassignment

If you have undergone or are in process of undergoing gender reassignment (changing gender from man to woman or woman to man) you are protected by law from being discriminated against. An example might be your employer refusing to let you use the toilet you want to use at work. Find out more about gender reassignment discrimination.

Marriage and Civil Partnership

Your employer cannot discriminate against you because you’re married or in a civil partnership. Marriage can be between a man and a woman or between partners of the same sex. A civil partnership is a legal relationship that can be registered by two people who are not related to each other. This can be a man and a woman or two people of the same sex.

For example, if certain employment benefits are only available to single employees, and someone is dismissed because they get married or enter into a civil partnership, or a candidate is refused employment because of their marital status, then this is unlawful discrimination.

Pregnancy and Maternity

It’s against the law to be treated unfavourably because you’re pregnant or on maternity leave. Unlike the other protected characteristics, there’s a ‘protected period’ from the start of your pregnancy to the end of your maternity leave where you have extra protection from discrimination.

But pregnant women or women on maternity can still experience discrimination outside of this protected period, for example, during the recruitment process. 

An example at work is an employer refusing to hire or dismissing a pregnant employee after being told about the pregnancy or selecting an employee for redundancy because of their pregnancy and approaching maternity. Find out more about pregnancy and maternity discrimination.


Race discrimination is when you are treated differently because of your race, colour, nationality (including citizenship), or ethic or national origin. A racial group can be made up of more than one racial group. For example, British Asians.

Race discrimination can happen at any point of employment, from recruitment to the termination of an employment relationship. For example, it’s unlawful discrimination if an employer refuses to hire an individual because of a policy to only hire people belonging to a particular race or nationality. An employer can also unlawfully discriminate if it allows the use of racist language in the workplace. Find out more about race discrimination.

Religion and Belief

The Equality Act protects all religions and beliefs, including philosophical beliefs and a lack of belief. One example of religious discrimination at work is your employer refusing to allow you to wear items of clothing such as a hijab or turban at work. Find out more about religious or belief discrimination.


Both men and women can be discriminated against at work because of their sex. Examples include being refused flexible working to help you carry out caring responsibilities or a man being refused a job in a nursery because the company says they only take on women. Find out more about sex discrimination.

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation discrimination applies to all types of orientation – whether you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight. It’s illegal to be discriminated against because of your sexual orientation, because you’re perceived as having a particular sexual orientation, or you’re associated with someone of a particular sexual orientation. An employer allowing the use of homophobic language in the workplace can be a form of sexual orientation discrimination. Find out more about sexual orientation discrimination.

Time Limits for Making a Claim

If you’re unable to resolve your dispute internally through a grievance, there is a strict time limit of three months less one day from the date or last date you were subjected to discrimination to bring a claim at an Employment Tribunal. For example, if you were subjected to discrimination on 15th January, your claim must be registered with ACAS no later than 14th April.

Unfortunately, this time limit cannot be extended if you’re raising or awaiting the outcome of an internal grievance.
In some cases, it’s possible to bring a claim at an Employment Tribunal outside of this time limit, at their discretion, but this is rare and complex. Because of this, we strongly recommend getting expert legal advice as soon as possible to make sure your position is protected.

Making a Discrimination at Work Claim

If you’ve been discriminated against at work because of any of the above reasons, our dedicated Employment Solicitors are here to support you. We can help you raise a grievance, negotiate with your employer or bring a claim at an Employment Tribunal.

We understand how upsetting discrimination at work can be and will fight to put things right. Get in touch to talk about your options.

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