One of the most widely understood protected characteristics is surely that it is unlawful to discriminate against a woman due to the fact of her pregnancy. It is therefore surprising, and perhaps a little depressing, that we are reporting on a discrimination case in this situation. It is perhaps even more concerning that the employer was a law firm.
Under the Equality Act 2010 it is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of:
- gender reassignment
- being married or in a civil partnership
- being pregnant or on maternity leave
- race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
- religion or belief
- sexual orientation.
These are known as 'protected characteristics' and people are protected from discrimination:
- at work
- in education
- as a consumer
- when using public services
- when buying or renting property
- as a member or guest of a private club or association.
Discrimination can come in one of the following forms:
- direct discrimination - treating someone with a protected characteristic less favourably than others
- indirect discrimination - putting rules or arrangements in place that apply to everyone, but that put someone with a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage
- harassment - unwanted behaviour linked to a protected characteristic that violates someone's dignity or creates an offensive environment for them
- victimisation - treating someone unfairly because they've complained about discrimination or harassment.
The law provides protection from discrimination at work, including:
- employment terms and conditions
- pay and benefits
- promotion and transfer opportunities
The case involved a receptionist who was working at a law firm. She was sacked because she took time off work as she was experiencing a difficult pregnancy. The Employment Tribunal awarded compensation of £23,500 of which £14,000 was for injury to feelings. Such a high award in this case was justified because the Employment Tribunal found that her employer had acted in a 'high-handed fashion'. He had refused to communicate with her and had behaved in a 'hostile and intimidating manner'. The firm has since been closed down by the regulator.
Employers should ensure that they comply with their legal and regulatory requirements when dealing with an employee who is pregnant and on the other side of the coin, such employees are entitled not to feel rejected and humiliated by their employer. This is a difficult and sensitive area – much anguish and cost could be saved if specialist advice is taken.
Contact us if you would like to discuss any employment matter.