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Discrimination at work - positive action

The Equality Act 2010 says employers can, in some situations, take steps to help certain disadvantaged groups access employment or training. This is called positive action.

Read this page to find out more about when an employer can take positive action to help certain groups of people.

What’s positive action?

Positive action is when an employer takes steps to help or encourage certain groups of people with different needs, or who are disadvantaged in some way, access work or training.

Positive action is lawful under the Equality Act. For example, an employer could organise an open day for people from a particular ethnic background if they’re under-represented in the employer’s workforce. This wouldn’t be unlawful discrimination under the Act.

When is something unlawful discrimination?

Generally speaking, it’s unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act if an employer treats you differently because of one of the following things:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

The Equality Act calls these things protected characteristics.

When can an employer take positive action?

Employers can take positive action to help people with a particular protected characteristic if:

  • they’re disadvantaged in some way in relation to work,
  • their participation in employment or training is particularly low, or
  • they have particular needs which are different from other people who don’t share their protected characteristic.

What can employers do?

The Equality Act says employers can take steps to:

  • help people with a particular protected characteristic overcome their disadvantage - for example, by offering internships or placements
  • encourage the participation of people with a particular protected characteristic in employment or training - for example, by reserving places on a training course
  • meet their needs - for example, by providing support or mentoring.

Favourable treatment if someone’s disabled

It’s not unlawful disability discrimination to treat someone who’s disabled better or more favourably than someone who’s not disabled.

For example, an employer is allowed to say they will interview all disabled candidates who meet the minimum selection criteria or provide specific training to disabled employees only.

Postive action in recruitment

An employer can take your protected characteristic into account when deciding who to appoint to a job, if:

  • people with your characteristic are at a disadvantage or under-represented in the employer's workforce, and
  • you and the others candidates are equally qualified.

For example, if an employer has several equally qualified candidates for a job, it wouldn't be unlawful discrimination to give preferential treatment to a woman if women are under-represented in the employer's workforce. But the employer would have to take the comparative merits of the other candidates into consideration before making the appointment.

Next steps

Other useful information

Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)

If you have experienced discrimination, you can get help from the EASS discrimination helpline.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

You can find useful information about discrimination on the EHRC website.

Acas

Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) provides free and impartial information and advice on all aspects of workplace relations and employment law.

To talk to an adviser about your employment problem, call the Acas helpline on 0300 123 1100.

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