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15 Equal Opportunities

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1. Introduction

2. When discrimination can happen

3. Types of discrimination

4. Sex discrimination

5. Transgender people

6. Discrimination because you are gay or lesbian

7. Discrimination because of your religion or beliefs

Under the new Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, it is unlawful to discriminate against people at work because of their religion or belief.

The regulations cover any religion, religious belief, or ‘similar belief’. ‘Similar belief’ includes such beliefs as paganism, atheism, humanism and pacifism, but it does not include political beliefs.

However, the regulations do not protect you against discrimination if an employer refuses to employ you because he or she is of a particular religion and you are not. You would have a case only if he or she did not employ you because of your own religion.

Religious discrimination can be closely connected with racial discrimination. For example, if you are discriminated against because you are Jewish, this may be either because of your race or your religion. In this type of case, you may want to rely on both the regulations and the Race Relations Act. For information about racial discrimination see the CLS Direct leaflet, ‘Racial discrimination’.

When discrimination is against the law

The regulations say it is against the law to discriminate against you by:

  • deciding not to employ you;
  • dismissing you;
  • giving you worse terms and conditions at work;
  • not giving you training or a promotion; and
  • not giving you the same benefits that people of a different religion or with different beliefs have.

An example of direct discrimination would be to refuse you a job because you are a Hindu even though you have all the necessary skills.

An example of indirect discrimination would be having a dress code that does not allow men to wear ponytails or headwear. This policy would disadvantage Sikh workers who wear turbans for religious reasons and Hindu men who wear a small knot of hair at the back of the head as a symbol of their belief.

Also, an employer may not discriminate against or victimise you after you have left your job.

Job duties that conflict with religious beliefs

Employers do not have to employ you if your beliefs mean you cannot do essential parts of the job. But it may not be reasonable to reject you if it is possible to allow you to work in a way that does not conflict with your beliefs. For example, if you are a Muslim or Jew and your work brings you into contact with food, you may not want to handle pork products. But there may be a way that you can still do your job without this.

What you wear at work

Your religion may mean that you have to dress in a certain way. For example, a Jewish woman may want to wear a shirt or blouse outside her skirt to avoid accentuating her body shape, or a Hindu man may want to wear neck beads to indicate his faith.

A dress code at work which wouldn’t let you dress this way may be discrimination unless your employer could show there was a good reason, for example, on health and safety or other similar grounds.

Religious observance

Your religion or beliefs may mean you have to pray at set times of day.

Your employer does not have to provide a prayer room or give you time during the working day to do this.

However, if there is a quiet place at your work, and using it wouldn’t cause problems for your co-workers or the organisation, it may be discrimination if your employer didn’t let you use the space for this.

You may ask to take your rest breaks to coincide with your obligation to pray at certain times of day. If your employer refuses to let you, without a good reason, this may be discrimination.

It may also be discrimination to:

  • make you work on holy days;
  • refuse to give you leave to celebrate festivals or attend ceremonies;
  • force you to take annual leave at set times.

Whether it is discrimination or not will depend on all the circumstances and whether your employer can justify the arrangements. For example, your employer may be justified in closing down for a time each year for maintenance work. In the same way, if a number of workers ask for time off at the same time, it may be difficult to balance the needs of the business with those of the workers. In a small organisation, it may be difficult for an employer to allow several workers to have time off at the same time; but in a large organisation, an employer would have less reason for not allowing several people time off.

When an employer is allowed to discriminate

In a very few cases, an employer is allowed to discriminate if it is a ‘genuine occupational requirement’ that the jobholder has a particular religion or belief. For example, a hospital may want to appoint a chaplain to tend to the needs of patients who are mainly Christian.

It is important that each post is considered separately. An employer cannot claim a genuine occupational requirement unless the work must be done by someone of a particular religion or belief, not just because the employer would prefer it.

Also, an employer may not claim a genuine occupational requirement if they already have enough employees who can do those parts of the job that need someone of a particular religion or belief. For example, if only a small part of the job qualifies for a genuine occupational requirement, then the work or jobs could be changed so that a genuine occupational requirement is not applied to a particular post.

To make sure it is still valid, a genuine occupational requirement should be looked at each time a post becomes vacant.

If an organisation has an ethos or philosophy based on a particular religion or belief, it may be able to apply a genuine occupational requirement to jobs where in other circumstances such a requirement would not apply.

Examples of ethos-based organisations include religious institutions, faith schools or faith-based care homes. To apply a genuine occupational requirement, an organisation must show that it is:

  • a requirement of the job in order to keep to the ethos of the organisation; and
  • ‘proportionate’ to apply the requirement. For example, a Church of England faith school may want to employ a religious education teacher who is a member of the Church. However, the school may not insist on its maintenance and administrative staff also being members of the Church.

Harassment because of your religion

Harassment is unwanted behaviour that:

  • humiliates you; or
  • creates an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment at work.

Harassment may be targeted at you because of your religious convictions or it may be part of a general culture that tolerates teasing and jokes about religion or it may be about the religion or belief of your close family or friends. For instance, if you are constantly teased at work because of your partner’s religious convictions, this is harassment even though it is not about your religion or belief.

Non-believers may also be the targets of harassment. For instance, if a religious member of staff continually refer to non-believers as ‘heathens’, this may be harassment too.

8. What you can do about discrimination

9. Dealing with discrimination at work

10. Going to an employment tribunal

11. Dealing with other types of discrimination

12. The Human Rights Act

13. Discrimination because of your age

14. Further help

15. About this leaflet

Equal Opportunities - Albanian

Equal Opportunities - Arabic

Equal Opportunities - Bengali

Equal Opportunities - Chinese

Equal Opportunities - Farsi

Equal Opportunities - French

Equal Opportunities - Gujarati

Equal Opportunities - Portuguese

Equal Opportunities - Somali

Equal Opportunities - Spanish

Equal Opportunities - Urdu

Equal Opportunities - Turkish

This leaflet was published by the Legal Services Commission (LSC). It was written in association with Sara Leslie

Leaflet Version:  December 2019


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