Core guidance: Businesses

Advice and Guidance

Who is this page for?

  • Any organisation providing a service

Which countries is it relevant to?

    • England flag icon


    • |
    • Scotland flag icon


    • |
    • Wales flag icon


First, use this list to make sure you know what equality law says you must do.

Make sure you know what is meant by:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • pregnancy and maternity (which includes breastfeeding)
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

Then you will know how you fit into each of these protected characteristics.

View a detailed list of the protected characteristics

Unlawful discrimination can take a number of different forms: 

  • You must not treat a person worse because of one or more of their protected characteristics (this is called direct discrimination).

For example:

A shop will not serve someone because of their ethnic origin.

A nightclub charges a higher price for entry to a man because of their sex where the service provided to a woman is otherwise exactly the same.

  • You must not do something to someone which has (or would have) a worse impact on them and on other people who share a particular protected characteristic than on people who do not share that characteristic. Unless you can show that what you have done is objectively justified, this will be what is called indirect discrimination. ‘Doing something’ can include making a decision, or applying a rule or way of doing things.

For example:

A shop decides to apply a ‘no hats or other headgear’ rule to customers. If this rule is applied in exactly the same way to every customer, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and Rastafarians who may cover their heads as part of their religion will not be able to use the shop. Unless the shop can objectively justify using the rule, this will be indirect discrimination.

  • You must not treat a disabled person unfavourably because of something connected to their disability where you cannot show that what you are doing is objectively justified. This only applies if you know or could reasonably have been expected to know that the person is a disabled person. This is called discrimination arising from disability.

For example: 

A shop has a ‘no dogs’ rule. If the shop bars a disabled person who uses an assistance dog, not because of their disability but because they have a dog with them, this would be discrimination arising from disability unless the shop can objectively justify what it has done.

  • You must not treat a person worse than someone else because they are associated with a person who has a protected characteristic.

For example: 

A restaurant refuses to serve a customer who has a disabled child with them, but serves other parents who have their children with them.

  • You must not treat a person worse because you incorrectly think they have a protected characteristic (perception).

For example:

A member of staff in a pub tells a woman that they will not serve her because they think she is a transsexual person. It is likely the woman has been unlawfully discriminated against because of gender reassignment, even though she is not a transsexual person.

  • You must not treat a person badly or victimise them because they have complained about discrimination or helped someone else complain or done anything to uphold their own or someone else’s equality law rights.

For example: 

A customer complains that a member of staff in a café told her she was not allowed to breastfeed her baby except in the toilets. Because she has complained, the café tells her she is barred altogether. This is almost certainly victimisation.

  • You must not harass a person.

For example: 

A member of staff in a nightclub is verbally abusive to a customer in relation to a protected characteristic.

Note: Even where the behaviour does not come within the equality law definition of harassment, for example, because it is related to religion or belief or sexual orientation, it is likely still to be unlawful direct discrimination because you are giving the service to the person on worse terms than you would give someone who did not have the same protected characteristic.

In addition, to make sure that disabled people are able to use your services as far as is reasonable to the same standard as non-disabled people, you must make reasonable adjustments. You cannot wait until a disabled person wants to use your services, but must think in advance about what people with a range of impairments might reasonably need, such as people who have a visual impairment, a hearing impairment, a mobility impairment or a learning disability.

For example: 

A bank branch has a flight of steps up to its entrance but it is not permitted by the local authority to build a ramp because this would block the pavement. The bank installs a platform lift so that disabled people with mobility impairments can get into the branch. This is a reasonable adjustment.

You can read more about making reasonable adjustments to remove barriers for disabled people. 

Because of a protected characteristic, you and anyone working for you: 

  • Must not refuse to serve someone or refuse to take them on as a client

For example:

  • You must not refuse to serve a woman who is breastfeeding a baby
  • You must not say you will not take people with a particular religion or belief as a client
  • Must not stop serving or working for someone if you still serve or work for other customers or clients who do not have the same protected characteristic in the same circumstances.

​​​​​​​For example:

  • You must not stop offering home visits to disabled people that you find out have a mental health condition if you go on offering them to other clients. That is likely to be unlawful disability discrimination.
  • Must not give someone a service of a worse quality or in a worse way than you would usually provide the service.​​​​​​​

For example:

You must not keep someone waiting for service twice as long as usual because of a protected characteristic.

  • Must not give someone a service with worse terms than you would usually offer. 

For example:

You must not charge someone with a particular protected characteristic a higher deposit when they hire something from you.

  • Must not put them at any other disadvantage.

You can still tell your customers or clients what standards of behaviour you want from them - for example, behaving with respect towards your staff and to other customers.

Sometimes, how someone behaves may be linked to a protected characteristic.  
If you set standards of behaviour for your customers or clients which have a worse impact on people with a particular protected characteristic than on people who do not have that characteristic, you need to make sure that you can objectively justify what you have done. Otherwise, it will be indirect discrimination.

If you do set standards of behaviour, you must make reasonable adjustments to the standards for disabled people and avoid discrimination arising from disability. 

For example:

A couple and their teenage child who has a learning disability sit down in a café. Because of her disability, the child speaks and laughs loudly. One of the staff tells the family they will have to leave if their child is not quiet, even though the parents explain why the child is making a noise. If the child’s behaviour is not causing any significant difficulties for other customers or for staff, it would probably be hard for the café to objectively justify telling the family to leave (in other words, withdraw the service from them), so doing this is likely to be discrimination arising from disability and/or indirect discrimination because of the child’s disability. The right approach would be for the staff first to make a reasonable adjustment to the standard they expected and only then to decide if the child’s behaviour was still unacceptable (which is unlikely).

Check out: What does equality law mean for you when you’re providing services to the public: staff, places, written information, websites, telephone access?

You can read more at delivering services

  • staff behaviour
  • advertisements and marketing
  • how people access services: face to face, at a particular place, using written materials, by the internet or over the phone.

Check out: When you are responsible for what other people do.

You can read more about when you are responsible for what other people do, such as staff working for you.

Exceptions: There are some exceptions to the general rules of equality law, when the law may apply differently in some circumstances. You can read more next about when these exceptions may apply. Check if any of them apply to your business or situation.

There are some exceptions to the general rules of equality law, when people’s protected characteristics may be relevant to the goods, facilities or services you provide. For businesses, these are:

  • Services for particular groups:
  • Services provided for people with a particular protected characteristic.
  • Separate services for men and women or single-sex services.
  • Where health and safety considerations apply to pregnant women.

As well as these exceptions, equality law allows you to treat disabled people more favourably than non-disabled people. The aim of the law in allowing this is to remove barriers that disabled people would otherwise face to accessing services.

For example:

  • A hairdresser visits a disabled client at home when they do not usually provide home visits, as the client has a mobility impairment that makes the sinks at the salon unsuitable for washing their hair.
  • A music venue gives two tickets for the price of one to disabled people who need to bring someone with them to assist them.

Providing services to people with a particular protected characteristic

It is sometimes permissible to supply services specifically for people with a protected characteristic, such as religion.

For example:

A butcher only sells Halal or Kosher meat, which conforms to some religious requirements.

The butcher does not have to sell non-Halal or non-Kosher meat, even though this means that Muslim and Jewish people are more likely to be customers than others. 

However, the butcher cannot refuse to sell the Halal or Kosher meat to customers who are not Muslim or Jewish.

Advertising and marketing

You can target your advertising or marketing at a group with particular protected characteristics, as long as you do not suggest you will not serve people with a particular characteristic.

You can read more about advertising and marketing within delivering services.

Situations where you can refuse service

There are limited and specific situations in which you can refuse to provide all or some of your services to people based on a protected characteristic.  

For example:

You can refuse to provide a service to someone who does not have a protected characteristic if you reasonably think it is impracticable for you to provide them with the service. 

Separate services for men and women and single-sex services

You are allowed to provide separate services for men and women where providing a joint service (i.e. one where men and women are provided with exactly the same service) would not be as effective. You are also allowed to provide separate services for men and women in different ways or to a different level where:

  • providing a joint service would not be as effective, and
  • the extent to which the service is required by one sex makes it not reasonably practicable to provide the service except in the different ways or to the different level.

In each case, you need to be able to objectively justify what you are doing.

You are allowed to provide single-sex services (services just for men or just for women) where this is objectively justified and:

  • only men or only women require the service, or
  • there is joint provision for both sexes but that is not enough on its own, or
  • if the service were provided for men and women jointly, it would not be as effective and the extent to which each sex requires the service makes it not reasonably practicable to provide separate services for each sex, or
  • the services are provided in a hospital or other place where users need special care, supervision or attention (or in parts of such an establishment), or
  • the services may be used by more than one person at the same time and a woman might reasonably object to the presence of a man (or vice versa), or
  • the services may involve physical contact between a user and someone else and that other person may reasonably object if the user is of the opposite sex. For example:
    • At a commercial gym and swimming pool, women-only swimming sessions could be provided as well as mixed sessions. 
    • Separate services for men and women could be provided by a beauty therapist where intimate personal health or hygiene is involved
    • A healthcare provider can offer services only to men or only to women, such as particular types of health screening for conditions that only affect men or only affect women.

Generally, a business which is providing separate services or single-sex services should treat a transsexual person according to the sex in which the transsexual person presents (as opposed to the sex recorded at birth), as it is unlawful to discriminate against someone because of gender reassignment. Although a business can exclude a transsexual person or provide them with a different service, this is only if it can objectively justify doing so.

A business may have a policy about providing its service to transsexual users, but this policy must still be applied on a case-by-case basis. It is necessary to balance the needs of the transsexual person for the service, and the disadvantage to them if they are refused access to it, against the needs of other users, and any disadvantage to them, if the transsexual person is allowed access. To do this may require discussion with service users (maintaining confidentiality for the transsexual service user). Care should be taken in each case to avoid a decision based on ignorance or prejudice.

Where a transsexual person is visually and for all practical purposes indistinguishable from someone of their preferred gender, they should normally be treated according to their acquired gender unless there are strong reasons not to do so.

You can refuse to provide a service to a pregnant woman, or set conditions on the service, because you reasonably believe that providing the service in the usual way would create a risk to the woman’s health or safety, and you would do the same thing in relation to a person whose health and safety might be at risk because of a different physical condition.

For example:

The owner of a fairground bumper-car ride displays a notice which states that the ride is unsuitable for people with back injuries. When they also refuse to allow a pregnant woman to go on the ride, this is likely to be allowed because of this exception.

A beauty therapist refuses a particular treatment to a pregnant woman which they would also refuse to someone who had a heart condition. This is likely to be allowed because of this exception.

Equality good practice can win you new customers or clients, or help you to keep existing ones, because you are showing that you aim to treat everyone well. It can also help you to avoid court claims, because you have shown that you have done everything you could be expected to do to make sure unlawful discrimination does not happen.

This guide tells you what equality law says you must and must not do to avoid unlawful discrimination.

If you want to be sure you are doing this, it is a good idea to:

  • use an equality policy to help you check that you have thought about equality in the way you plan what you do and how you do it
  • give equality training to everyone in your business who deals with customers or clients, to make sure they know the right and wrong ways to behave.

You may want to target people with a particular protected characteristic through positive action if they are currently missing out on your services. To do this, you must show that people with a particular protected characteristic have a different need or a track record of disadvantage or low participation in an activity.

Last updated: 19 Feb 2019

Further information

If you think you might have been treated unfairly and want further advice, you can contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service.

Phone: 0808 800 0082

You can email using the contact form on the EASS website.

Also available through the website are BSL interpretation, web chat services and a contact us form.


Opening hours:

9am to 7pm Monday to Friday
10am to 2pm Saturday
closed on Sundays and Bank Holidays

Alternatively, you can visit our advice and guidance page.