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Discrimination at work - occupational requirements

This advice applies to England

If you’re a job applicant or a worker, employers aren’t generally allowed to discriminate against you. This is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. For example, an employer can't refuse to employ you because you’re a woman or because you’re gay.

But there are situations where it's lawful for the employer to require a job to be done by someone with a particular characteristic, if having this characteristic  is an occupational requirement for this job.

Read this page to find out more about occupational requirements under the Equality Act.

When is it unlawful discrimination?

An employer can't refuse to employ you if it's because you have a characteristic which is protected under the Equality Act. This would be direct discrimination.

Direct discrimination is unlawful under the Equality Act if it happens because of the following protected characteristics:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

When is it not unlawful discrimination?

If an employer can show it’s necessary for someone to have a particular protected characteristic to do a job, it may not be unlawful discrimination. This is called the occupational requirement exception.

The Equality Act says employers need to show all of the following things for the discrimination to be lawful:

  • the requirement is an occupational requirement - it must not be a sham and there must be a link between the requirement and the job
  • the employer has a good business reason or a legitimate aim for applying the requirement - the employer can't just say they have a good business reason for applying the requirement, they must be able to show it
  • having the requirement is the best way to achieve the employer’s aim - the Equality Act says the requirement must be proportionate.

When can an employer apply an occupational requirement?

Employers can only apply an occupational requirement in relation to a decision about:

  • recruitment - that is whether or not to offer you a job
  • promotion or transfer to another job
  • access to training
  • dismissals.

Examples of occupational requirements

Examples of situations where an employer may be able to rely on the occupational requirement exception include where:

  • the job involves working with people from a particular ethnic group and you need to be from the same ethnic background and speak the same language
  • the job is to work as a counsellor for deaf people whose first language is BSL and the employer wants to employ a deaf person who speaks BSL
  • the job requires someone of a particular sex for reasons of privacy and decency - for example, a job working in a unisex changing room
  • the job involves working in a refuge for victims of domestic violence and you need to be of the same sex as the occupants
  • it’s an acting job and the part you’re playing requires you to be of a certain sex or ethnic background.

Next steps

Other useful information

Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)

If you have experienced discrimination, you can get help from the EASS discrimination helpline.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

You can find useful information about discrimination on the EHRC website.


Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) provides free and impartial information and advice on all aspects of workplace relations and employment law.

To talk to an adviser about your employment problem, call the Acas helpline on 0300 123 1100.

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