What are the nine protected characteristics?

Protected characteristics are aspects of a person’s identity that makes them who they are. Everyone has at least of few of the nine protected characteristics, so as an employer, it’s important you make sure an employee isn’t treated less favourably because of theirs.

Originally, there were various pieces of legislation in place that protected people from discrimination based on various characteristics of their identity – these included the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, to name just a few.

However, in 2010, the Equality Act 2010 replaced these multiple pieces of legislation in an attempt to simplify the law and bring together all anti-discrimination legislation under one Act. The Act covers an employer’s legal responsibility to protect their employees from discrimination based on nine outlined characteristics.

As an employer, you have a legal responsibility to make sure you’re complying with the Equality Act all the way from recruitment to terminating an employee’s contract. Neglecting your responsibilities could have huge consequences for your business so it’s important you understand what the protected characteristics are and how to avoid discriminating against them.


The 9 protected characteristics

There are nine characteristics outlined in the Equality Act 2010 which are:

  1. Age
  2. Gender
  3. Race
  4. Disability
  5. Religion or belief
  6. Sexual orientation
  7. Gender reassignment
  8. Marriage or civil partnerships
  9. Pregnancy and maternity

As well as preventing employees from discriminating against each other, you need to make sure you’re not discriminating against an employee based on one of the above characteristics. Discrimination comes in different forms and varies from verbal slander to a company policy that puts a specific employee at a disadvantage because of their characteristic(s), both of which are examples of direct and indirect discrimination.

To make sure you’re doing everything you can to prevent discrimination in your workplace, our Employment Law experts have expanded on each protected characteristic, so you have a full understanding of what the Equality Act 2010 covers.



Age discrimination is treating an employee less favourably because of their age and can affect other employees of a similar age.

Examples of age discrimination include:

  • Asking an employee during the interview process what year they graduated from university
  • Not looking to further develop an employee because of their age – if they’re close to retirement, for example
  • Stating in a job description that you’re only considering applicants from ‘young and energetic’ individuals

These are just a handful of examples of age discrimination in the workplace and for more information on how to spot it, manage it, and prevent it, read our Age Discrimination Support Guide.


This protected characteristic aims to prevent discrimination against an employee based on their gender. Examples of gender discrimination include:

  • Not promoting a female employee because you’re not sure what their plans are for motherhood
  • Not accepting a male application for a role in beauty because you don’t think he’d fit in with a mainly female team
  • Asking a female candidate questions during an interview you wouldn’t ask a male candidate

To learn how to identify sex discrimination and how to prevent it, take a look at our Sex Discrimination Support Guide.


The Equality Act 2010 protects individuals from discrimination on the grounds of their nationality or race. Some examples of race discrimination include:

  • Bullying and harassment of an employee because of their race
  • Not hiring an individual because they weren’t born in the UK
  • Insisting that all employees must have English as their first language

For more information on how to manage a race discrimination case, read our free support guide.


The Equality Act 2010 states that employees who have long-term mental or physical impairments that affect their day-to-day activities are protected under the protected characteristic of disability. Examples include Autism, Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, and Cerebral Palsy to name a few.

As an employer, you have a duty of care to make reasonable adjustments for your disabled employees so they can carry out their job effectively.

Could your employee work in a less customer-facing role? Can you provide additional equipment to help your disabled employees? Do you check in more regularly with your disabled employees? Do you offer your disabled employees more training if they need it? For more information on what you can do to support your disabled employees, you can read our guide on creating a more inclusive workplace for your differently-abled employees here.

Religion or belief

This protected characteristic applies to individuals who have a genuine belief in a clear religious structure like Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.

Some examples of discriminating against an employee's religion include:

  • Not hiring someone because of their religion or faith
  • Questioning an employee's belief or mocking it
  • Not inviting an employee to a social event because they don’t drink due to their religious beliefs
  • Outlining that no jewellery or religious wear can be worn during work to comply with the dress code
  • Asking all employees to work on a Sunday, which might not be possible for some employees based on their beliefs
  • Refusing annual leave for a religious holiday without a justifiable reason

Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation or ‘sexuality’ refers to the gender an individual is attracted to. Different types of sexual orientation include:

  • Heterosexual/straight
  • Homosexual/gay
  • Bisexual
  • Asexual
As with the other characteristics, sexual orientation discrimination can take many forms. Examples include:
  • Refusing annual leave for a female employee to attend antenatal appointments with her pregnant partner but approving annual leave for a male employee to attend antenatal appointments
  • Refusing to hire someone because they have stated they're gay or bisexual
  • Treating an employee less favourably because his parents are both female, otherwise known as 'discrimination by association'

Gender reassignment

Gender reassignment is changing from one gender to another, and the Equality Act (2010) states you can’t treat an employee less favourably because they are trans or are associated with someone who is.

This also protects employees who have changed genders without undergoing any medical procedures. As an employer, you need to identify any measures that might put a trans employee at a disadvantage and take the necessary steps to adjust them, so those employees are equally represented.

Marriage or civil partnerships

Marriage or civil partnership discrimination is treating employee less favourably because of their marital status. Employees who are divorced, engaged but not married yet, or just co-habiting do not fall under this protected characteristic.

Some examples of marriage or civil partnership discrimination include:

  • Refusing to give a newly married female employee evening shifts because you assume she wants to be at home with her spouse in the evening
  • Not promoting an employee because you’re worried they won’t have enough time to dedicate to their role now they’re married or in a civil partnership

Pregnancy and maternity

The Equality Act 2010 states that you can’t treat an employee less favourably because of their pregnancy or maternity status. This applies from the beginning of the pregnancy up to when the employee returns from maternity leave and a few examples of this discrimination include:

  • Authorising just one 30-minute break for all employees and punishing a pregnant employee because they are fatigued and need extra time
  • Disciplining an employee due to a pregnancy-related sickness absence
  • Asking a pregnant employee to work while they’re on maternity leave
  • Stopping an employee from returning to work because they’re breastfeeding

Questions about workplace discrimination?

No employer wants a discrimination case on their hands but it’s important you’re able to manage it confidently and compliantly if one does fall in your lap. If you’re a client of ours and would like support with managing discrimination in your workplace, you can call our experts on our 24/7 advice line on 0345 844 4848.


If you’re not a Citation client but would like to chat through how we can support your business, just leave your details in the form opposite and one of our friendly advisors will be in touch. Alternatively, you can call our team today on 0345 844 1111 to chat through your needs.

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