Discrimination at work

If you have had cancer, the law considers this as a disability.

There are different types of disability discrimination.

Some problems may happen because of misunderstandings about cancer. When you have cancer, your employer or colleagues may make some assumptions. Some examples of this are:

  • your employer thinks you cannot do the same job as before
  • your employer assumes that you will be less committed to work
  • your employer thinks that the stress of having cancer makes you less suitable for promotion
  • your colleagues think they will need to do extra work.

Any of these attitudes towards people with cancer can lead to discrimination at work.

Types of disability discrimination

Employment laws provide protection against different types of disability discrimination.

We have information about these different types of discrimination and examples of discrimination in the workplace.

Are you being discriminated against?

If you feel you are being discriminated against, it is best to start by talking to your:

  • supervisor
  • manager
  • human resources (HR) manager.

Talking openly to one of them about your needs and their needs may help to fix the problem.

If you feel you cannot talk to your manager, ask someone in the HR department or an occupational health adviser for help. If you are a member of a trade union, you can get help and support from a union representative.

What you can do for yourself

There are many different things that could support you at work during or after cancer treatment. Some of these include:

  • Company policies – find out about relevant company policies from your line manager or HR manager. Check the employee handbook or intranet if you have it.
  • Check your legal rights we have more information about your rights at work.
  • Adjustments in the workplace – try to go to your employer with suggestions and solutions. This will demonstrate your commitment to your job. These might include reasonable adjustments like working from home, changing your hours, changing your role or job description, changing your targets or objectives, changing to lighter duties, or a combination of these.
  • Phased return – if you go back to work after long-term sick leave, suggest a phased return. This is when you increase your hours slowly over a period of time.
  • Fit note – your employer may find it helpful to have medical advice on the support you need. Your GP can provide this in a fit note. Or your employer may be able to refer you to an occupational health service.
  • Contact your trade union – if you are a member of a trade union, you can ask them about ways they can support you.
  • Access to Work scheme – if you need adjustments to your workplace, the Access to Work scheme might be able to provide grants for equipment or help with transport to work. Visit Access to Work, or NiDirect if you live in Northern Ireland.
  • Macmillan Support Line – contact the Work Support service on the Macmillan Support Line by calling 0808 808 00 00.

Taking formal action

You may feel your employer is not behaving in a reasonable and fair way. Or you may not have been able to resolve the matter in a way that you are happy with.

Depending on your situation, you may find you need to take more formal action. Here are the steps you will need to take:

  • A formal complaint (grievance complaint)

    Your employer should have a policy that explains how an employee can make a formal complaint. If you are not sure what the grievance policy says or where to find it, ask an HR manager. It is a good idea to get advice from a staff or union representative if you have one. The following organisations provide information about discrimination and your rights: 

  • An employment tribunal (England, Scotland and Wales)

    If you feel your employer is being unreasonable and has not dealt with your grievance fairly, you can complain to an employment tribunal. This is called making a claim. Before making a claim to an employment tribunal, you must contact:

  • An industrial tribunal (Northern Ireland)

    If you feel your employer is being unreasonable and has not dealt with your grievance fairly, you can complain to an industrial tribunal. This is a legal body that makes decisions in legal disputes between employees and employers.

Time limit

There are short, strict time limits for making a claim to an employment or industrial tribunal. You will usually need to make your claim within 3 months, minus 1 day, of when the problem happened.

For example, if you were discriminated against on 13 July, you need to start the process by 12 October. But there are a few exceptions. It is important to get advice as soon as possible.

We have more information about this in our booklet Your rights at work when you are affected by cancer.

What to do if you apply for a new job

Recruitment is about selecting the right person for a job. It means considering their experience, personal qualities and qualifications. Questions about a person’s health during recruitment are unlawful, except in specific situations.

Applying for a job in England Scotland and Wales

When you apply for a job, an employer can only ask questions about your health before they offer you a job in order to:

  • monitor who is applying for the job to make sure they are not discriminating against anyone in their application process
  • make sure they recruit people from a range of different groups, such as people with disabilities or people from ethnic minorities – this is called taking positive action
  • check whether you need any reasonable adjustments for the recruitment process – for example, if you need to have the interview in a ground floor room
  • find out whether a health condition could prevent you from doing a task that is a main part of the job – for example, if a job requires a lot of heavy lifting.

An employer can ask you about your health after you have been offered the job. But if an employer takes away a job offer because of what you have told them about your health, they must have a reason that does not discriminate against you. They also have to think about any reasonable adjustments they could make to allow you to do the job.

Applying for a job in Northern Ireland

An employer can ask you about your health when you apply for a job. But they cannot discriminate against you because of your disability when you apply for a job.

An employer must also think about any reasonable adjustments they could make to allow you to do the job.

What if I am self-employed?

If you are self-employed, you may not have legal protection against discrimination. In some cases, you may be protected against discrimination if you are employed under a contract. This means there is an agreement between you and an employer that you will personally do work and be paid for it. Citizens Advice has more information about this.

People with their own business may not be protected from disability discrimination by a customer or client.

Problems may happen because of a misunderstanding about cancer. Some examples of this are:

  • a client thinking you can no longer do the same work
  • a client thinking you may be less committed to work because of the cancer
  • a client thinking cancer makes you unsuitable for certain contracts
  • a fellow contractor thinking they will need to do extra work to make up for you being off.

Any of these attitudes towards people with cancer can lead to difficulties in your work life.

Even if the law does not protect you, talking to people you work with about the cancer diagnosis and its impact can often help.

Getting advice

If you feel you are being treated unfairly, it is best to start by talking to your customer or client.

Talking openly about your needs and their needs may help fix the problem. You could suggest solutions to show your commitment to the job. This could include making small changes to your duties to fit with your needs.

The Access to Work scheme may be able to help with the cost of these changes if needed. Visit Access to Work for more information about the scheme in England, Scotland and Wales. Visit NIDirect for more information about the scheme in Northern Ireland.

If you are contracted by another business, ask them or their human resources (HR) manager about relevant company policies. For example, they may have an equality and diversity policy, a bullying and harassment policy, or an equal opportunities policy. These are usually found in the employee handbook or on the intranet if they have one. You may not have access to these policies, but you can still ask to see them.

If you want to know how equality laws could help you, call:

How we can help

Help with work
We have information and an advice service for anyone who has to cope with cancer while they are working or running a business
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