Discrimination in the recruitment process and workplace: a legal guide for graduates
Last updated: 21 Jun 2023, 15:38
If you are concerned you might be at a disadvantage due to an issue related to equality and diversity – for example, being LGBT+, having a disability or on the grounds of gender or race – how do you ensure recruiters give you the best chance to show your abilities and treat you fairly?
Most UK graduate employers promote equal opportunities and diversity during their recruitment and selection processes and in the workplace. They recognise that employees from different backgrounds bring unique knowledge, skills and experience to their businesses.
However, discrimination in the recruitment process can still happen, so it is important to know your rights.
Jump to the most relevant information for you
targetjobs provides advice on a range of key equality and diversity issues. We examine your rights during the recruitment process and give you our advice on issues around disclosure (if appropriate) and marketing yourself to employers. Jump to:
- The nine characteristics of the Equality Act
- Sexual orientation and discrimination
- Transgender rights and discrimination
- Sex and discrimination
- Disability and discrimination
- Race and discrimination
- Religion and belief and discrimination
- Social class and discrimination
- Age and discrimination
- Asylum seekers and employment rights
- Making a complaint about discrimination
- When employers can take positive action
- Employers’ application forms and diversity questionnaires
However, we always recommend seeking guidance from a university careers adviser, so that you can discuss your individual circumstances and concerns.
The Equality Act 2010 lists nine 'protected characteristics' where discrimination is (usually) against the law.
There are some exceptions to this regarding employment: see the section below on'The Equality Act 2010 and positive action' for an example.
The protected characteristics are:
- gender reassignment
- marriage or civil partnership
- pregnancy and maternity
- race (including colour, nationality, ethnic and national origin)
- religion or belief
- sexual orientation.
If you are covered by any of these categories, you are legally protected against direct or indirect discrimination in the recruitment process and when you are in a job.
What does the law say about sexual orientation and your rights?
The Equality Act 2010 makes unlawful any direct or indirect discrimination, harassment or victimisation on the grounds of sexual orientation, which covers heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality. (See ‘The Equality Act 2010 and positive action’ below for possible exceptions to the act due to there being an occupational requirement.)
We cover legal issues relating to transgender people and job hunting in more detail below, but will use LGBTQ+ here as a readily recognisable acronym.
Should you come out at work or during the recruitment process?
This is an entirely personal decision; you do not have to disclose your sexual identity at any point during the recruitment process if you do not wish to and you should not be asked about it by an interviewer.
You can highlight any actions you took as part of an LGBTQ+ student society or similar as good evidence of your skills without having to disclose your sexual identity, if that is your preference.
How to find LGBTQ+ positive employers
Stonewall has long been a champion for lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning and ace people and compiles the UK Workplace Equality Index , which scores employers according to ‘their progress on lesbian, gay, bi and trans inclusion in the workplace' (note: not all employers are listed).
Many graduate employers are keen to promote their support for LGBTQ+ employees, so read their diversity and inclusion commitments on their targetjobs organisation hubs and on their websites. Larger employers frequently have LGBTQ+ employee network groups – many students tell targetjobs that they try to judge how active these are when choosing employers.
- Stonewall: a champion for LGBTQ+ people
- Employees talk about LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace – watch our webinar and read the accompanying article about being out in the workplace and finding LGBTQ+-friendly employers
- The targetjobs LGBTQ+ Undergraduate of the Year Award – enter a competition to find the most outstanding LGBTQ+ undergraduate in the UK and win work experience and networking opportunities with a top employer.
What does the law say about trans employment rights?
In England, Scotland and Wales, the Equality Act 2010 makes unlawful any direct or indirect discrimination, harassment or victimisation due to gender reassignment. (See ‘The Equality Act 2010 and positive action’ below for possible exceptions to the act due to there being an occupational requirement.) Gender reassignment refers to ‘people who are proposing to undergo, are undergoing, or have undergone a process (or part of a process) to reassign their sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex’.
During the Taylor v. Jaguar Land Rover (2020) case, it was found that 'gender reassignment need never be a biological process'. So, neither the proposal of nor the carrying out of physiological changes, such as through surgery, is required in order to be protected by the act.
Case law has also confirmed that people who identify as non-binary or gender fluid are protected by the Equality Act, even though it does not use that wording.
In the UK, the Gender Recognition Act 2004 enables trans people who have transitioned at least two years previously to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). This ensures that in law they have the rights and responsibilities associated with their gender identity, so, for example, they can receive the state pension and other benefits at the relevant age. Employers are not permitted to disclose the gender history of someone with a GRC – or plans to apply for one. Trans people who are required to undergo a criminal record check by the Disclosure and Barring Service or Disclosure Scotland as part of a recruitment process can have a confidential check so that their previous name/gender isn’t disclosed to an employer.
Do you need to disclose that you are trans at work or during recruitment?
No, there isn’t a legal obligation and you do not have to disclose your gender identity to be protected by the Equality Act 2010.
Particularly if you plan to transition, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and other organisations recommend that you discuss your gender identity with your employer so that they can support you, but it remains a personal choice.
How to find trans-positive graduate employers
Stonewall’s UK Workplace Equality Index ranks a selection of employers on their LGBTQ+ inclusiveness. It’s also worth checking the equality and diversity policies of the employers in which you are interested. Even if an employer does not have a specific policy around the treatment of trans employees, check to see whether the organisation uses non-binary or gender-neutral language in the information it provides on its activities and career opportunities. If so, it may be a clue that it is trans-positive.
- Stonewall: a champion for LGBTQ+ people
- Employees talk about being LGBTQ+ in the workplace – watch our webinar and read the accompanying article about trans inclusion in the workplace and finding LGBTQ+-friendly employers
- The Gender Trust: for all those affected by gender identity issues
What does the law say about sex discrimination?
In England, Scotland and Wales the Equality Act 2010 makes unlawful any direct or indirect discrimination, harassment or victimisation on the grounds of a person’s sex: male or female. However, the act allows for certain cases where sex is an occupational requirement and can be stipulated in a job specification. Note that, within the act, sex does not refer to issues of gender reassignment or sexual orientation, which are dealt with separately.
Acas spells out that it is illegal for employers to pay men and women differently for work that is the same or broadly similar, work valued as equivalent by the employer’s job evaluation or work found to be of equal value with regards to effort, skill or decision making. However, an employer could potentially successfully justify a pay difference if they can point to a reason that isn’t due to sex.
The Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017 require public, private and charity/voluntary organisations with 250 or more employees to publish their gender pay gaps.
Gender and positive action recruitment initiatives
Many employers take part in positive action recruitment initiatives in order to address gender-related underrepresentation in their industries (see below for more on positive action). targetjobs runs a number of these events bringing together employers and students, including:
- The targetjobs Female Undergraduate of the Year Award – enter our competition to find the most outstanding female undergraduate of the year and win a paid internship with a top employer
- The targetjobs Future Female Engineers event
- The targetjobs IT’s not just for the boys event
- Equal pay: information and guidance from Acas
- Career tactics for women: from internship to job to promotion
- Tips you can’t miss for career success as a woman in STEM
What does the law say about disability discrimination?
The Equality Act 2010 makes unlawful direct or indirect discrimination, harassment or victimisation related to a disability and discrimination/unfavourable treatment arising from the disability itself. The act defines disability as ‘a physical or mental impairment’ that has ‘a substantial and long-term adverse effect’ on a person's ‘ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’.
An employer is legally required to make reasonable adjustments to the recruitment process and in the workplace to prevent the disabled person being at a disadvantage compared to a non-disabled person – as long as they could be reasonably expected to know about the disability. It is illegal for employers not to hire a candidate because they’d have to make reasonable adjustments – however, there may be exemptions if, for example, a certain level of physical fitness is an absolute requirement. See ‘The Equality Act 2010 and positive action’ below.
People with disabilities and certain long-term health conditions, may be at a higher risk from Covid-19. This means that employers must support these staff when it comes to issues such as workplace safety or flexible/hybrid working. Recent case law suggests that long Covid may meet the legal definition of disability if the condition is proved to be long-term (if it has lasted or is likely to last for 12 months).
Should you disclose a disability to employers?
There is no legal requirement for you to disclose a disability to an employer either during recruitment or in the workplace; it is entirely up to you and, if you do disclose, you can ask HR to keep it confidential.
There are strict restrictions on which health-related questions can be asked before a job offer is made, but employers can and should ask whether you would like any reasonable adjustments made (or have any access requirements) during the recruitment process. Graduate employers strongly advise you to tell them of any such adjustments or requirements, if it will help them to ensure that you are assessed on a level playing-field alongside non-disabled applicants.
How do you best disclose your disability if you choose to?
You can do so at any point in the recruitment process, once you have received a job offer or at any time in the workplace.
You may want to add a note to your CV or covering letter or to upload a short statement to an online application form when given the option to upload relevant documents. This is sometimes known as an openness statement. Give this particular consideration if illness or disability has meant longer time periods to complete education or led to gaps in employment.
If you do disclose, we advise keeping the explanation of your disability brief and factual. You may want to avoid medical terms if there are popular misconceptions around them. Stress what you have achieved despite (or because of) your disability instead.
We have put together a useful article with disability expert Helen Cooke from MyPlus , an organisation that helps students with disabilities find graduate jobs, on whether you should disclose your disability and how to go about it – with example openness statements.
How to find disability-friendly employers
Signs that an employer has disability-friendly policies or a disability-friendly workplace culture include the following:
- its job adverts and application form have the Jobcentre Plus 'disability confident' symbol, which has replaced the ‘two ticks’ positive-about-disability symbol
- its organisation hub on targetjobs includes a disability-focused diversity and inclusion statement and it has the ‘MyPlus’ badge
- it provides application forms and so on in alternative formats
- it is a member of the Business Disability Forum or signatory of the Mindful Employer Charter for Employers who are Positive about Mental Health
- it runs positive action recruitment schemes.
- How to get a graduate job if you have a disability
- Careers events for students with disabilities and how to make the most of them
- Acas guidance around disability discrimination at work
- Disability Rights UK
- Leonard Cheshire’s Change 100 internship and professional development programme for disabled students and recent graduates
- Shaw Trust
Neurodiversity and your job hunt
If you identify as non-neurotypical or as part of a neurominority and you have additional concerns about getting a job, we have resources that can help,
The Equality Act 2010 makes unlawful direct or indirect discrimination, harassment or victimisation on the grounds of race, which includes colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins.
The UK government encourages, but at the time of writing does not require, employers to report on ethnicity pay gaps. Search gov.uk for updates on this and the latest report it produces.
Race and positive action initiatives
A number of employers run initiatives in the workplace and during recruitment for those from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background. These include (but are not limited to):
- The targetjobs Aspire and Aspire Law events for black heritage students
- The targetjobs Black Heritage Undergraduate of the Year Award – enter our competition and win a paid internship
- The Windsor Fellowship
- SEO London
- #10,000 Black Interns
When assessing employers’ committed to racial justice, many students tell targetjobs that they look beyond diversity statements to look at the proportion of BAME employees in more senior positions, at how active employee network groups are and at how involved larger employers are in racial justice initiatives.
- Acas guidance on race discrimination at work
- Download Group GTI’s (targetjobs’ parent company’s) report on racial justice and early careers recruitment
- ‘ Championing Black, Asian and ethnic minority employees at FTI Consulting ’: about FTI Consulting’s BAME employee network (advertising feature)
Social and class backgrounds are not protected under the Equality Act 2010 or similar legislation. However, many graduate employers are increasingly alert to the potential disadvantages that may affect university students who come from a ‘widening participation’ background – that is, those who have faced barriers to accessing higher education due to coming from a less privileged socio-economic background or similar. These disadvantages could include candidates being inadvertently sifted out during the recruitment process because, for example, they were unable to take up unpaid internships or to access expensive extracurricular activities.
Many employers are taking steps to remove the effects of possible disadvantages, for example by moving to a strengths-based recruitment process or by running events and initiatives aimed at those who come from a less privileged background. These events include, but are not limited to, the following:
- The targetjobs Inspire and Inspire Law events – aimed at those who do not have a ready-made network to help them get a job
- The targetjobs First Generation Undergraduate of the Year Award – enter and win prizes including a paid internship with a top employer
- The targetjobs Undergraduate of the Year for Excellence Through Adversity Award – enter and win prizes including a paid internship with a top employer.
Check the targetjobs organisation hubs and individual employer websites for more programmes.
Your careers service can provide advice on how to present your achievements to the best effect and they may also have specific initiatives to help students from a widening participation background. For example, many universities offer funding to help with expenses incurred while undertaking internships.
What does the law say about religion, beliefs and discrimination?
The Equality Act 2010 makes unlawful direct or indirect discrimination, harassment or victimisation due to religion and any religious or philosophical belief or the lack thereof. (See ‘The Equality Act 2010 and positive action’ below for possible exemptions.)
What constitutes a philosophical belief has been tested by the courts: a 2015 Employment Appeal Tribunal case found that ‘philosophical beliefs’ included political beliefs and a 2022 Employment Tribunal found that ‘gender critical’ beliefs also counted. (NB: political beliefs are explicitly protected by legislation in Northern Ireland, but not in England, Scotland and Wales.)
An employer is not legally required by the act to allow time off or facilities for religious observance, but it is good practice for them to do so.
Do you have to disclose your religion or beliefs to employers?
No, you are not legally required to; it entirely depends on what you feel comfortable with.
If your involvement in activities related to your spiritual or religious beliefs has developed essential skills and competencies, most careers advisers will encourage you to add them to your CV as evidence of your capabilities – but, again, this is a personal choice.
What does the law say about age discrimination in the workplace and during the recruitment process?
The Equality Act 2010 makes unlawful direct or indirect discrimination, harassment or victimisation on the grounds of age, whatever that age may be. (See ‘The Equality Act and positive action’ below for possible exemptions to this.)
In most cases – and unless they can prove it has a legitimate and justifiable purpose – graduate employers cannot set an age limit for graduate schemes. They may, however, be able to say that a graduate scheme is suitable for those who have graduated within the last few years, and specify a date range for eligibility.
Marketing yourself to employers
You do not have to put your age or date of birth on your CV and most employers no longer ask for it on application forms. Whatever your age, you should present your skills and experiences in the best light during applications and interviews; your careers service can help with this. Our CV advice can help you to create the best possible CV: start with ‘Chronological or skills-based: which CV is best for you?’ .
Your employment rights depend on whether you have the right to work in the UK; it’s best to seek expert advice. If you do have the right to work in the UK, you can apply for any graduate job or scheme. If there is information on your application or CV that may lead an employer to question whether you do have the right to work in the UK, you may wish to be explicit about your right to work in the UK in your application.
What employers say about diversity and inclusion
In a series of advertising features found exclusively on targetjobs, a selection of employers share what they want you to know about equality, diversity and inclusion in their workplaces. Here are just a few of the articles targetjobs has created for (and which were paid for) by employers:
Diversity and inclusion at work: be yourself at BAE Systems (advertising feature)
How FTI's Women's Initiaitve is empowering women in consulting (advertising feature)
The importance on teachers representing pupils and taking leadership positions (advertising feature)
Women in STEM: life as a graduate engineer at BAE Systems (advertising feature)
What does D&I mean at HSBC? (advertising feature)
Championing black, Asian and ethnic minority employees at FTI Consulting (advertising feature)
Job applicants and employees can seek redress if they feel that they have been discriminated against due to one or more of the protected characteristics listed in the Equality Act 2010. This includes during the recruitment process, in the workplace, and on and following dismissal. Methods of redress include raising a grievance or taking the employer to an employment tribunal.
If you are considering taking such a step:
- Think about what your aims are in taking action. For example, do you want a financial settlement? Would you like a formal apology?
- Seek advice and support (legal and emotional). Good sources of support include: your careers service (most offer advice to their alumni after graduation) or the Equality and Human Rights Commission; your trade union, if appropriate; your local Citizens Advice office; the Law Centres Network; and a relevant charity or pressure group.
- Bear in mind that, in the workplace, employers will seek to resolve complaints or grievances informally initially, before pursuing a formal grievance procedure. Formal grievance procedures will need to be followed before a case can be taken to an employment tribunal.
- Note that there are no fees for taking an employer to an employment tribunal.
There are a few cases where positive action is allowed and employers can prefer a job applicant or an employee with or without a protected characteristic, without it being deemed discrimination. For example, there are a few cases where a protected characteristic may be deemed an occupational requirement. Acas, the free and impartial advice service for issues in the workplace and employment legislation, gives the example of requiring a practising Catholic to work as a chaplain in a Catholic chaplaincy at a university. The bar of proof that a stipulation relating to a protected characteristic is truly an occupational requirement is set high.
An employer can also run positive action schemes during recruitment and in the workplace. If the action is aimed at those who are judged to be at a disadvantage because of a protected characteristic, are under-represented at the organisation or have ‘specific needs connected to a protected characteristic’, an employer can take steps to negate any barriers and disadvantages. Employers, however, do need to show that these actions are ‘a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim'. One positive action that many graduate recruiters take is attending networking and recruitment events aimed at particular student demographics, after which graduates can be fast-tracked through parts (but not all) of the recruitment process.
Many employers add a diversity monitoring questionnaire to their application forms (usually it is the last section). This is usually intended to help the company track their record of attracting a diverse workforce and inform any positive action initiatives they wish to take. The information you supply shouldn’t be seen by anybody involved in your recruitment or be passed to your future line manager but, if you do not want to answer the questions, the form should contain a ‘prefer not to say’ option.
Key legal information
This feature was last written and updated in October 2022 and while we at targetjobs have made every effort to ensure the information given was accurate at this time, we strongly recommend that you check out the latest legal situation for yourself. Ask for information from your university careers service and refer to the following sources for updates:
- The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s ‘Employment: statutory code of practice’ , which elucidates on points from the Equality Act
- The Acas website , home of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. Acas provides free and impartial advice to employers and employees on employment legislation and workplace issues