When you apply for a job, there are certain things the employer can’t consider when deciding whether to offer you the job. These are known as ‘protected characteristics’.
The protected characteristics are:
- gender reassignment
- marriage and civil partnership
- pregnancy and maternity
- religion or belief
- sexual orientation
There are some exceptions to the rules on discrimination if they are justified by the job being advertised. Examples might include:
- Requiring an actor to be of the correct age for the part they will be playing
- Requiring someone who works with vulnerable people to be the same gender as the people they work with
- Requiring a hospital chaplain to be of a certain religion
Any exceptions must be based on the specific job, not just the organization. For example, a Christian care home could require its carers to be Christians so they could fully support its residents, but it couldn’t consider religion when hiring cleaners.
Similarly, while a disability can prevent you from doing certain jobs, employers are expected to make reasonable adjustments to the role and the workplace so that a person with a disability can do it.
Employers also have a limited right to make a decision based on one of the protected characteristics if they are deciding between two equally qualified candidates and one comes from a group which is disadvantaged or under-represented in jobs of that kind.
Questions you don’t have to answer
If you get through to a job interview, there are certain questions that a potential employer isn’t allowed to ask you.
- You can’t be asked about any of the protected characteristics. This includes indirect questions: for example, an interviewer couldn’t ask about where your surname comes from, as this might be a way of discriminating by ethnicity.
- You can’t be asked questions about your lifestyle, such as whether you smoke or drink.
Some employers will still ask questions that aren’t allowed. This might be because they think they can get away with it, they don’t know the law properly, or simply because they are trying to make conversation — for example, they might ask about when you graduated, which could be considered a way of indirectly discriminating based on age.
What you can do
If you have been discriminated against, your first step should be to write down exactly what happened in as much detail as you can. This will make sure that you don’t forget anything during the rest of the process, and will help you work out what to do next.
The formal process for dealing with discrimination is an employment tribunal. This is an independent process, and the employer can be made to pay you compensation if the tribunal decides that you have been treated unfairly.
You have three months to apply to a tribunal after the alleged discrimination happens, so if you try another solution (such as trying to settle with the employer), make sure you are aware of the deadline so you don’t leave it too late.
Employers aren’t legally required to give references unless they have agreed to do so in writing, or they are in a regulated industry.
If they do give you a reference, it has to be fair and accurate, but they don’t have to provide much detail, and they can give you a bad reference if it is accurate.
If you are given an unfair or inaccurate reference and you lose out because of it – for example, because a job offer is withdrawn – you can sue the organization that gave you the reference. However, it can be difficult to find out if you were given an unfair reference, because the referee doesn’t have to show it to you.
Find out more about references.