If you think you didn’t get hired or suffered a disadvantage at work because of your social class, there is currently no obvious protection for you under discrimination law. The Equality Act 2010 only applies if you can show that the conduct you are challenging is connected to one or more of the nine characteristics the act protects. These include race, sex, gender reassignment, disability, religion or belief, age and sexual orientation, but not your socio-economic status.
Many think the exclusion of class from this list of protected characteristics means that we are failing to prohibit a very real and plainly unacceptable form of discrimination in our society.
The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has recently called on national governments to prevent “povertyism”, defined as negative attitudes and behaviours towards people living in poverty. They argue that “povertyism” should be given the same protection as discrimination based on race, sex, age etc.
Closer to home, the British Psychological Society, the TUC, the Social Mobility Commission and some academics have argued for “social class” to be added to the Equality Act 2010 as a way of promoting social mobility and addressing class-based inequalities.
Adding “class” would not only mean that negative treatment based on this characteristic (ie discrimination, harassment and victimisation) would be prohibited. It would also put a duty on public sector entities to monitor and report on their efforts to tackle discrimination of this kind. It would also give employers a legal footing on which to take “positive action” to address identified barriers or disadvantages faced by certain socio-economic groups. For more on this see below and Charmaine Pollock’s piece here.
So will class be added?
Despite these calls and (some may argue) its intuitive appeal, this is not something that the Government or Equality and Human Rights Commission seem to have high on their agenda, if at all. And it is not hard to see the definitional tangles law drafters could find themselves in trying to pin down what exactly we mean by "social class”; perhaps this is what is holding the legislators back?
Is there really no protection?
Just because we don’t have “class” defined in our equality law does not mean employees have to suffer poor treatment connected to their class without redress, or that employers should not be vigilant against the issue.
“Class” as part of other protected characteristics?
In 2013 the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism stated there was an “inextricable link” between poverty and racism, and this year the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Annual Report noted that ethnic minorities are still disproportionately impacted by poverty in the UK. To the extent an employee sees their ethnicity as part of their class (and the reason for their treatment / detriment), then a race discrimination claim could be brought. It is also not hard to see how comments which could be seen in their broad sense as “classist” could also be looked at through the lens of sex or age and potentially other protected characteristics. Consider, for example, an employee being called a “typical Essex girl”?
Workplace culture and bullying
Negative comments about someone’s background and perceived class or other poor treatment connected to this (whether conscious or not) are obviously unpleasant to experience. It could erode morale and motivation and leave someone feeling targeted, bullied and unfairly treated at work. They may even feel unable to work as a result. Such conduct could represent breaches of your workplace bullying and harassment policies: grievances and / or disciplinary processes could be triggered and working relationships would inevitably suffer. Ultimately, this could also risk the targeted employee claiming constructive unfair dismissal, citing a breakdown in trust and confidence. For more on constructive dismissal see Alice Yandle’s blog here.
Taking the initiative on class
What can you do to be proactive on this issue? As part of a comprehensive strategy on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) (for more on this see here) you may wish to take action to address perceived disadvantages or barriers to people of a certain socio-economic background in your company or sector. Many of our clients express a wish to recognise socio-economic status in their recruitment of employees and board members in order to increase representation and diversity. While it is hard to see any organisation being criticised for such action, care should be taken (and advice sought) when implementing such strategies to ensure you do not inadvertently discriminate in another direction. Ironically, because “class” is not recognised in the Equality Act, the provisions which give employers the legal permission to take positive action to explicitly promote and support a protected group (perhaps to the disadvantage of others) does not exist for class.
Needless to say, employers who have sensible codes of conduct and standards which encourage employees to treat one another fairly and with respect will already be going a long way to address classist behaviours (as well as other forms of unwelcome and potentially unlawful conduct).
For now, it doesn’t look like the law is going to be moving in this area any time soon. It does, however, remain a hot topic in legal and academic fields, and we think employers are becoming increasingly alive to this issue despite the lack of legal definition. There is no doubt that a workplace culture where people are judged based on the quality of their work and aptitude for the job (rather than their socio-economic standing or background or any other irrelevant characteristic) is going to be a happier and more effective one.
With many thanks to Alex Evans, a current paralegal in the Employment team, for helping with producing this blog.
If you require further information about anything covered in this briefing, please contact Sophia Coles or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, February 2023