Which organisations are covered

In general, rights and equality laws regarding employment apply to all organisations that have employees. They do not only apply to how employers treat their current workforce: the rules apply to everything from how they recruit to how they treat former employees, such as pension-holders. Employers are also responsible for the actions of their staff.

There are some differences in how the law affects public authorities:

  • If you are a public authority, you will have additional responsibilities.
  • If you are outside the public sector, but have public sector clients, they may have additional responsibilities to make sure you work in ways that promote equality. If you are performing functions of a public nature for them, you may share these legal responsibilities.

The various regulations on equality in employment are listed below and apply to all employers and employees. They prohibit discrimination, harassment and victimisation of employees and others on grounds of race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or belief, disability and age:

  • Sex Discrimination (Gender Reassignment) Regulations 1999
  • Race Relations Act 1976 (Amendment) Regulations 2003
  • Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003
  • Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003
  • Disability Discrimination Act (Amendment) Regulations 2003
  • Employment Equality (Sex Discrimination) Regulations 2005
  • Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006

You can download Acts and regulations from Key legislation

The former Equal Opportunities Commission produced a code of practice on sex equality in employment.

The former Commission for Racial Equality revised its code of practice on racial equality in employment in 2006.

The former Disability Rights Commission also produced a code of practice on employment and occupation, which gives guidance to employers and others about employing disabled people.

The codes of practice listed above are all still in force and give helpful guidance to employers and can be downloaded. They are statutory documents, which means that employment tribunals will take their recommendations into account as evidence in any legal proceedings.

Information about employing older workers and publications for employers from Age Positive can be found on the Business Link website

Acas has useful advice for employers on putting the regulations listed above into practice. Find out more from the Acas website.

Liability for employees’ actions

An employer will, in most cases, be liable for any discriminatory acts by its employees. For example:

  • a manager conducting interviews in a discriminatory manner
  • employees harassing a disabled colleague.

Simply showing that an act of discrimination was not authorised by the management of the company is not sufficient.

An employer who has taken all steps they practically could to prevent a particular act of discrimination may be able to use this as a defence. A company would normally have to show that rigorous anti-discrimination policies are in place, backed up by training programmes and robust grievance procedures.
Generally speaking, employers who take these sorts of measures to address the danger of potential discrimination are much less likely to find themselves in an employment tribunal in the first place.

Find out more about employers’ liability and legal responsibilities.

Contractors working for public authorities

The prohibition of discrimination applies to all employers, whether an organisation is public, private or voluntary. But when an organisation is performing functions of a public nature, the law is slightly different.

If you run a private company that works as a contractor for a public authority, your client may also have a duty to make sure you work in a way that actively promotes equality, rather than just avoiding discrimination. You may be considered a public authority yourself, if the work you are doing is of a public nature. If this is the case, you will be bound by the duties to promote equality.

Find out more about these public sector duties, and how they apply to suppliers and partners.

Small businesses

Whether you employ only a few people, or over a hundred, you will still need to meet the requirements of the equality legislation.

Smaller businesses already face many demands on their time, and often don’t have staff focusing on employment conditions. So, even with good intentions, it’s not surprising that equality issues are not always on their minds.

But there are compelling reasons for promoting equality within your business. Most small businesses cannot afford to turn away customers, and need the broadest market they can get. It is also valuable for small businesses to hang on to the staff in whom they have invested time and development, and that means making people feel valued, and perhaps making adjustments.

And if you're planning to compete for public sector contracts, you will need to demonstrate that you take equality seriously.

The three former equality commissions all prepared guides for small businesses:

  • Racial equality and the smaller business – a practical guide.
  • Disability and small business.
  • Gender and small businesses.

See the publications and resources section for these. See also the Age Positive publications reproduced on our website for guidance on age matters.

You can find useful resources on the Acas website.

Trade unions and other associations

Trade unions, employers’ associations, professional and trade associations are both employers and providers of services. They have a duty not to discriminate in either of these roles.

For example, a trade union can’t refuse an employee membership on discriminatory grounds or treat them less favourably when providing services such as representation.

Find out more about the responsibilities of clubs and associations.

Employment agencies

An employment agency cannot act in a discriminatory way in providing its services, whether to an organisation it is supplying or to the candidates it might put forward for work. As an employer, it is bound by the same legal framework as any other organisation.

Find out more by looking at Part 5 of the Commission for Racial Equality’s statutory code of practice on racial equality in employment.

Find out more about the responsibilities of service providers.

Last Updated: 04 Jun 2009