Anti-discrimination laws make it illegal for employers to discriminate against candidates or employees on the grounds of disability, race and gender. Although there are no direct laws yet available to protect against discrimination on the grounds of age, sexual orientation and religious beliefs, developments in the European Union are set to affect legislation in these areas also.

Disability rights

Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1996 (DDA), disabled jobseekers can expect to be protected from discrimination during the recruitment process and throughout their employment. This covers terms and conditions of employment, disciplinary proceedings, dismissal, harassment, training and promotion prospects. The DDA applies to firms that employ 15 or more people.

For the purposes of the Act, disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment, which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities. Dyslexia, for example, is covered, as are migraine and asthma as well as clinical depression. The impairment must have lasted 12 months or be likely to last 12 months or be of a recurring nature where a recurrence is likely in a 12 month period.

You are not obliged to share disability information with a prospective employer, however the Disability Rights Commission advises that it is in everyone’s best interests for an employee to alert a prospective boss of specific needs. Employers can ask about your health or disability, but must not use the information to discriminate against you. You should not be treated less favourably because of your disability at any stage of recruitment or employment. If a job offer is made, the employer must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the premises or the employees working practices as required. What is ‘reasonable’ will vary from employer to employer depending on the cost and ease of change, the employer’s resources, and the financial help available (e.g. grants and aid). Reasonable adjustments can include obtaining extra equipment or reorganising someone’s working day. Failure to take necessary actions would be discrimination.

If you think you have been discriminated against you could bring a discrimination claim to an employment tribunal. For further information contact the Disability Rights Commission at www.drc-gb.org or call 020 7211 4020.

Sexual and racial discrimination

The laws against sex and race discrimination are similar. Jobseekers are protected from being treated differently because of their gender or marital status during all parts of the recruitment process and during employment, under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (SDA). These laws also make it illegal to harass someone sexually.

Similarly, under the Race Relations Act of 1976 (RRA) discrimination due to racial background, nationality or ethnic origins must not occur at any point during job application or employment. The RRA was also amended in 2000 and now requires many public authorities to promote racial equality in areas such as recruitment, the workplace and training opportunities.

Discrimination can be direct or indirect. Direct discrimination is when a candidate is less favourably treated because of their race or sex. Indirect discrimination is more subtle and therefore more difficult to identify and prove. It occurs usually where a stipulation exists which is harder for people of one race or sex to meet compared with the rest of the population. However, an employer will not be found guilty of discrimination if it can justify the requirement as necessary for the running of the business.

If you think a potential boss has unfairly treated you could bring a discrimination claim to an employment tribunal. This applies to anybody applying for a job, not just people with an existing relationship with the employer. Unfortunately over the years the success rate has rarely been over 20 per cent due in part to the claimant’s responsibility for proving discriminatory behaviour or less favourable treatment on the part of the employer. However the good news, in the case of sexual discrimination, is that a new European law, which came into force in October 2001, puts the onus on the employer to disprove discrimination rather than on the individual to prove it.

For further information, see the Commission for Racial Equality web site at www.cre.gov.uk and the Equal Opportunities Commission website at www.eoc.org.uk.