Protection against discrimination

If you live in the UK, legislation protects you from discrimination in the workplace. Discrimination happens when you are treated less favourably than another person because of your disability. If you have cancer (or have had it in the past), you are legally classed as disabled.

Discrimination can affect:

  • the recruitment process
  • your terms, conditions and benefits
  • opportunities for promotion and training.

In England, Scotland and Wales, you’re protected under the Equality Act 2010. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and its extension, the Disability Discrimination Order of 2006, protect you if you live in Northern Ireland. These acts require your employer to make reasonable adjustments to your workplace and their working practices.

The legislation also protects you from:

  • Harassment – when you experience unwanted behaviour due to your disability, which makes you feel degraded or intimidated.
  • Victimisation – when you are treated unfairly after making a complaint.

Carers are also protected by some parts of the legislation.

What is discrimination?

Discrimination can include:

  • an employer not making reasonable changes to allow you to do the job (for example, to cope with fatigue)
  • an employer giving you a warning for having a lot of time off sick, but not taking your cancer diagnosis into account
  • an employer suggesting that it would be better if you retired or stopped working
  • being dismissed for a reason related to your cancer
  • being demoted to a lower-paid or less demanding job for a reason related to your cancer
  • being passed over for promotion in favour of someone with less experience or ability to do the job because of a reason related to your cancer
  • being chosen for redundancy for a reason related to your cancer (for example if you’ve used more sick leave than your colleagues)
  • not being given a job because of your cancer
  • not being allowed time off for medical appointments
  • having an unfavourable appraisal or performance review (for example, if you’ve had a lot of sick leave or tiredness and haven’t met targets or objectives as a result of this)
  • an employer making it difficult for you to get any sick pay you're entitled to
  • being harassed – this is when an employer or colleague bullies, intimidates, insults you or makes you feel uncomfortable so you feel you can’t stay in your job (for example, being teased about hair loss, or being laughed at or whispered about by colleagues)
  • victimisation.

Almost four in ten people (37%) who return to work after cancer say they experience discrimination from their employer or colleagues.

A dark green splash of paint with the words 'Your Rights at Work' in white.

How am I protected from discrimination?

Under the Equality Act 2010 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA), it’s unlawful for an employer to treat you less favourably (discriminate against you) because of your disability. If you have cancer, you are legally classed as disabled.

Even if you’ve had cancer in the past, it has been successfully treated and you are now in remission, you will still be covered by this legislation. This means your employer must not treat you less favourably for any reason related to your past cancer.

Which areas of employment are covered by this legislation?

The Equality Act and the DDA cover all areas of employment (even when you no longer work for your employer).

These include:

  • the recruitment process
  • your terms, conditions and benefits
  • opportunities for promotion and training.

They also cover you if you are treated less favourably than other workers because of your cancer. This includes harassment and victimisation (see below). Your employer also has to make reasonable adjustments to make it easier for you to work.

What are reasonable adjustments?

Both the Equality Act and the DDA require your employer to make reasonable adjustments to your workplace and their working practices. They are required to do this when the workplace or their working practices mean you are at a substantial disadvantage because of your cancer, compared with those who don’t have cancer.

There is no fixed description of what a reasonable adjustment is. But it will depend on things such as:

  • how much the adjustment costs
  • how much the adjustment will benefit you
  • how practical it is to make the adjustment
  • whether making the adjustment will affect your employer’s business, service or financial situation.

Your employer does not have to make a reasonable adjustment unless it knows (or should reasonably know) that you have cancer.

Some examples of a reasonable adjustment include:

  • giving you time off to go to medical appointments
  • changing your job description to remove tasks that cause problems
  • allowing you to work more flexible hours
  • giving you extra breaks if you feel very tired
  • letting you do just light duties for a temporary period
  • changing your performance targets to take into account the effect of any sick leave or treatment side effects, such as fatigue
  • moving you to a role with more suitable duties (with your agreement)
  • changing where you work, for example, moving you to a ground floor office if breathlessness makes it difficult to climb stairs
  • making sure you can access your work building if you use mobility equipment, such as a wheelchair or crutches
  • giving you computer equipment that might help, such as voice-activated software if you can’t type
  • letting you work from home
  • providing a disabled toilet
  • allowing you to return to work gradually after a long period of time off work.

What is direct discrimination?

Direct discrimination is when, because of your disability, you receive less favourable treatment than someone who doesn’t have that disability.

Legislation helps to protect people who have a disability from being dismissed, refused a job or receiving less favourable treatment at work (than non-disabled people) because people assume they can’t carry out their job or certain tasks.

Direct discrimination can happen even if it is meant with good intentions. For example, if your employer suggests you’d be better off not being promoted because the job would be too demanding, this is direct discrimination. But it would be appropriate for your employer to have a sensitive conversation with you about the impact of a new job on your health.

Some problems may happen because of misunderstandings about cancer.

Your employer may assume that you can no longer do the same job, that you may be less committed to work because of your illness or that the stress of having cancer makes you a less suitable candidate for promotion.

Your colleagues may also think that they will need to do extra work because you can’t do your job. Any of these attitudes towards people with cancer can lead to subtle or obvious discrimination at work.

If you are a carer

Carers are also protected from direct discrimination.

Razia's experience

Razia was rejected when she applied for a job because her employer knew that she had previously had a cancer diagnosis. The employer was concerned that if the cancer came back, Razia would have to take sick leave.

What is discrimination arising from disability?

This applies in England, Scotland and Wales. Discrimination arising from disability (DAD) applies under the Equality Act, but not the DDA. This means that it doesn’t apply in Northern Ireland. It is when someone with a disability is treated unfairly because of something relating to their disability. It’s different from direct discrimination, which is when someone is treated less fairly because of the disability itself.

With direct discrimination, you need to show that a non-disabled person would have been treated differently, but with DAD, you don’t.

In some cases, where there is a justifiable reason for it, DAD is allowed. DAD is lawful when it can be proved that it’s meant to achieve an aim of the organisation in a fair, balanced and justifiable way and that any reasonable adjustments have been considered.

It is unlikely to be easy for your employer to defend their reasons for DAD and for it to be justified. Usually, any potentially unfavourable treatment can be overcome by making reasonable adjustments. Assessing whether DAD is justifiable is therefore likely to involve considering whether any adjustments could have been made. Whether DAD can be justified will depend on the individual circumstances, so it is difficult to give an example.

If you’re unsure about something you’re experiencing at work, it’s a good idea to speak to an employment lawyer or an employment organisation. There are useful organisations here to help you and you can search for them on our website.

It is also legal for your employer to carry out discrimination related to your disability if they can show they didn’t know, and couldn’t reasonably be expected to know, that you have a disability. Before an employer can use this to defend themselves, they must have taken all reasonable steps to find out if you have a disability.

This aspect of disability discrimination legislation doesn’t apply in Northern Ireland. But if you have a problem, you should still seek advice from an employment lawyer or an organisation that can give advice on employment issues. There are useful organisations here to help you and you can search for them on our website.They may be able to give you advice on resolving the issue.

Daffyd's experience

Daffyd’s boss gave him a poor appraisal because he had missed targets due to treatment and fatigue related to his cancer. Even if his employer treated other people in the same way for missing their targets, it would be unlawful to treat Daffyd like this unless his employer could show that the action was justified under the Equality Act.

What is indirect disability discrimination?

This applies in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Indirect disability discrimination applies under the Equality Act and the DDA. It is when there is a rule, policy or practice that applies to everyone, but it puts you at a disadvantage compared to people who don’t have a disability.

As with DAD, a rule or practice may still be legal if it can be proved that its aim is to achieve an aim of the organisation in a fair, balanced and reasonable way and that any reasonable adjustments have been considered.

Your employer has to be balanced between doing something that has a negative effect on you and the reasons for doing it. So an employer needs to think about whether there is a way to do what they want to do without discriminating against you.

Unlike in direct discrimination, your employer does not need to know about your disability to indirectly discriminate against you.

Kathleen's experience

Kathleen’s company needed to make some redundancies. The company uses the amount of sick leave taken as selection criteria for redundancy. As Kathleen had taken time off work because of cancer she, and other people with cancer, was at a disadvantage in comparison to people who had not had cancer. This is indirect discrimination unless the employer can show that it can be legally justified.

What is harassment?

This applies in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Harassment is covered under both the Equality Act and the DDA. Disability harassment is when you experience unwanted behaviour related to your disability, which causes you to feel intimidated, degraded or offended.

If you are a carer

You are also covered under the Equality Act (but not the DDA) against harassment if you are a carer. It is against this legislation for you to be harassed at work, or when you buy goods or services when you care for a disabled person.

Rebecca's experience

After her chemotherapy, Rebecca's colleagues were always teasing her about her hair loss. She felt humiliated but didn't feel able to challenge them. She complained to her manager, who then spoke to the staff.

What is victimisation?

This applies in England, Scotland, Wales and applies in part in Northern Ireland. Victimisation is when you are treated unfairly after you have made a complaint. For example, a complaint about discrimination or harassment under the Equality Act or the DDA. It also applies if you have helped someone else to make a complaint and are treated badly, or because your employer thinks you may make a complaint or help someone to make one. This applies whether or not you are disabled.

Under the Equality Act, but not the DDA, you don’t need to prove you have been treated less favourably than someone who has not made a complaint. You only need to show you were treated unfavourably and you must genuinely believe this is true. This legislation does not protect you if you don’t act honestly and believe what you are saying is true.

Jim's experience

Jim’s boss was being awkward about his request for time off for a chemotherapy appointment. Jim reported the problem to the human resources department. The HR manager told Jim’s boss that she had to give him the time off. Jim’s boss was angry that Jim spoke to a different department. She then stopped Jim from going on a training course and gave him a poor appraisal.

How much can employers ask about my health?

This applies in England, Scotland and Wales. In most cases, under the Equality Act, employers can only ask questions about someone’s health (including asking whether you have a disability) during recruitment in extremely limited situations (see below). But an employer can ask you about your health after you have been offered the job.

If an employer takes away a job offer because of your health, they have to make sure they do this in a non-discriminatory way. Instead, they have to think about any reasonable adjustments they could make to allow you to do the job.

Employers are allowed to ask questions about your health during the recruitment process in some circumstances. This could be to:

  • make sure they are not discriminating against anyone in their recruitment process
  • carry out positive action (to make sure they recruit people from a range of different groups, such as people with disabilities or people from ethnic minorities)
  • check whether you need any reasonable adjustments for the recruitment process (for example, having the interview in a ground floor room)
  • find out whether you will be able to carry out a task that is a main part of the role. For example, if a job requires a lot of heavy lifting, they have the right to find out if a health condition could stop you from doing that task.

In Northern Ireland, employers are not prevented from asking job applicants about their health but they are prevented from discriminating against applicants because of their disability.

Back to The impact cancer may have on work

Taking time off work

If cancer or its treatment prevent you from working, you may qualify for benefits that can provide some financial help.