What does the law mean by 'discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation'?

Discriminating on grounds of sexual orientation means treating someone less well than other employees because they are, or are believed to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual or heterosexual. For example, this could involve:

  • refusing to employ or dismissing someone because they are lesbian, gay or bisexual;
  • being refused access to training or promotion because of sexual orientation;
  • denying a homosexual person's civil partner the benefits that the employer provides for its heterosexual employees' spouses;
  • giving an unfair reference when someone leaves, because of their sexual orientation;
  • victimising someone by treating them less favourably if they have complained about or alleged sexual orientation discrimination, or given evidence in such a case; or
  • discriminating indirectly: this happens when the employer has made a condition that applies to everyone, but which is not possible, or as easy, for a person of a different sexual orientation to comply with.

The employer will also be liable for discriminatory actions taken by anyone acting on their behalf, whether or not it was done with their knowledge (unless the employer can show that they had taken reasonable steps to prevent such actions).

The law prohibits less favourable treatment towards people because they are lesbian, gay or bisexual. It also prohibits less favourable treatment of anyone because they associate with someone who is lesbian, gay or bisexual, for example because they campaign alongside them or speak up for their rights at work. This is sometimes called 'associative discrimination' and is unlawful.

Harassment linked to sexual orientation is also unlawful. For example it is unlawful to use abusive or offensive language linked to sexuality at work, whether or not those who have to put up with the language are themselves gay, lesbian or bisexual.

For example in one case, co-workers sabotaged the mobile phone of a heterosexual manager to post on Facebook - “Finally came out of the closet. I am gay and proud”. This was sexual orientation harassment.

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.

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