Call us for a free Consultation on: 0333 772 0611

Positive action and positive discrimination


Mon 3 June, 2019

Police officers in a line

Positive action and positive discrimination

Advertising jobs targeting applicants of a particular race or granting a promotion based on gender can be confusing and controversial.

In the current climate great emphasis is based on equality and diversity, so the idea that a candidate can be recruited or promoted based on a certain characteristic may seem dubious.

It is perfectly legal for employers to act in this way, but only in very specific circumstances.

The terms ‘positive action’ and ‘positive discrimination’ will be familiar and they are often mistakenly interchanged.

Positive action (1) in recruitment means it is not unlawful discrimination to take special measures to combat disadvantage or under-representation experienced by those with a protected characteristic.

Positive discrimination (2) is generally unlawful. There are, however, rare circumstances in which it is lawful to require a job candidate or employee to have a particular protected characteristic, for example where an occupational requirement applies.

Positive discrimination should be distinguished from positive action, which is lawful. Here we will look at both.


Positive action

It is lawful under the Equality Act 2010 (3)for an employer to take action to address disadvantages that it believes are faced by people who share a particular protected characteristic such as race, age or sex.

The Act also covers the limited circumstances in which positive action can be taken in regards to recruitment and promotion.

Positive action is lawful if it is taken to: overcome a disadvantage connected to a protected characteristic; meet the needs of people who share a protected characteristic; or enable or encourage people who share a protected characteristic to participate in an activity in which they are poorly represented.

In some circumstances job advertisements can target people from disadvantaged groups. 

Section 159 of the Equality Act (4) allows an employer to treat an applicant or employee with a protected characteristic more favourably than an individual without that characteristic who is as qualified for the role.

The BBC was forced to refute claims it was ‘anti-white’ when it advertised for two junior scriptwriting roles for medical drama Holby City as available only to people from ‘ethnic minority backgrounds’ (5)

The Corporation defended the move saying it was the right thing to do given the under-representation of people from ethnic minority backgrounds in script editing roles at the BBC.

Taking the positive action must be a balanced way to tackle any disadvantages faced by a particular group or to encourage them to take part in an activity.


Positive discrimination

In rare circumstances and as a special measure employers can discriminate in favour of a particular group if it is a positive step to tackle a disadvantage or to meet a very specific need.

It is lawful to require a job applicant or worker to have a particular protected characteristic, for example where an occupational requirement applies.

A domestic violence refuge for women can advertise for females only as it can be deemed to be a genuine occupational requirement under the Equality Act.

Earlier this year the leader of Britain’s police chiefs said police forces should be allowed to positively discriminate in favour of potential employees from minority ethnic backgrounds in order make themselves more representative of communities they serve (6)

Sara Thornton, chair of the National Police Chief Council said she believed that positive discrimination was needed, and new laws should be passed to ‘shock the system’. Thornton said it was her personal view that positive discrimination was needed

An employment tribunal case involving one police force should serve as a warning to all employers in regards to discrimination in recruitment.

A Liverpool employment tribunal found Cheshire Police was guilty of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, race and gender after a potential recruit claimed he was rejected because he was white, male and heterosexual (7)

Positive discrimination is generally unlawful but positive action is not. If positive action is taken it must be proportionate, or appropriate, to achieve what it is setting out to achieve without resulting in people without the relevant characteristic being treated less favourably.

 “A reputation built on success”

For free employment law advice or if you are affected or want information and support by any of the issues in this article please give us a call. 0333 772 0611



  1. Cambridge dictionary [Internet] [Accessed on 28.5.19]
  2. Discrimination [Internet] https://uk.practicallaw.thomsonreuters [Accessed on 28.5.19]
  3. 2010 Equality Act [Internet] [Accessed on 28.5.19]
  4. Equality Act [Internet] [Accessed on 28.5.19]
  5. BBC article [Internet] [Accessed on 28.5.19]
  6. Police force article [Internet] https:/ [Accessed on 28.5.19]
  7. Liverpool Employment Tribunal [Internet] [Accessed on 28.5.19]

Were here to help when you need it.

   "A reputation built on Success"

We offer support on a wide range of employment law and HR issues. Our dedicated adviser are here to answer your questions and help you with your concerns. Your call is free and with no oblgation. Calls may be recorded for monitoring and training purposes.

Call us today on 0333 772 0611 or request a call back

Minimize close

Request a call back

Enter the characters shown in the image.

Recent Posts




Had a query related to redundancy and the way my employer had been treating me. They were very helpful.


Prompt respond and good advice.


It was a very stressful time at work for me, where I was being victimised. I was absolutely devastated by the whole situation.



Excellent and speedy advice just what I needed

Fiona Ashton


To give such good advice so quickly and for free can only be commended.

Rodge M


Outstanding ! The advice given is excellent.

P. Bullock


Very helpful 15 minute consultation. Would be happy to consult again. Many thanks.



I got a call back from them on the same day and it's been very helpful and understanding,Many thanks



What an amazing team. I recently found myself on suspension after a call of mine was monitored by the company I work for. I felt at the time that it was unfair and did acknowledge the mistake straight away.



Fantastic support and high quality service in a difficult time of my life. I got clear advice on my rights and would definitely recommend Castle Associates to anyone.