Sexual orientation discrimination

It's against the law for an employer to discriminate against you because of your sexual orientation. You're also protected against harassment or bullying at work.

How the law defines sexual orientation

You shouldn't be discriminated against because of your sexual orientation or 'perceived' sexual orientation. This includes orientation towards someone of the same sex (lesbian/ gay), opposite sex (heterosexual) or both (bisexual).

Where the law applies

The law against sexual orientation discrimination at work covers:

  • recruitment
  • terms and conditions
  • pay and benefits
  • status
  • training
  • promotion
  • transfer opportunities
  • redundancy
  • dismissal

Direct discrimination

You shouldn't be treated less favourably (for example, being refused employment) because of your sexual orientation or because an employer thinks you are of a certain sexual orientation.

If an employer gives benefits to unmarried partners of its employees, for example an employee's opposite-sex partner is able to drive the company car, refusing the same benefits to same-sex partners could be discrimination.

A civil partnership partner is entitled to the same benefits as a married person, like survivors benefits under a company pension scheme for example.

Genuine occupational requirements

'Genuine occupational requirements' are allowed if an employer can show that the job has to be done by someone of a particular sexual orientation.

For example, an organisation advising on and promoting gay rights may be able to show that it is important to its credibility that its chief executive, who will be the public face of the organisation, should be gay. The sexual orientation of the holder of that post may therefore be a genuine occupational requirement.

Indirect discrimination

You have the right not to be disadvantaged by a policy at work because of your sexual orientation. For example, if your company arranges a conference in a country where homosexuality is illegal and there is no good reason for it to be held there, this could be classed as indirect discrimination.

Indirect discrimination is unlawful whether or not it's done on purpose. It is only allowed if it's necessary for the running of the business.

Harassment and victimisation

The law protects you from harassment or victimisation because of your sexuality or perceived sexuality. This applies if you're intentionally or unintentionally bullied, or if there is a general culture of disrespect. This could include an environment in which homophobic jokes are made.

The harassment can take place at work or in a work-related setting, like a social event away from the workplace. You're also protected against harassment through being associated with another person. If you have a lesbian friend, for example, you don't have to put up with jokes from other employees at her expense.

You also have the right not to be victimised. This means that you must not be treated less favourably because you've complained, or been involved in a complaint, about sexual orientation discrimination.

Sexual orientation and religion in the workplace

You may work with a colleague who has strong views on sexual orientation because of their religion. However, this doesn't mean they can bully or harass you. In the workplace, everyone has the right to be treated with respect, no matter what their sexual orientation.

Disclosing your sexuality to your employer

Some employers ask for details of the sexual orientation of employees - either for monitoring purposes or as part of an equal opportunities questionnaire. You don't have to give this information.

If you think you've been discriminated against

If you think you've been discriminated against, victimised or harassed at work because of your sexual orientation, talk to your employer or personnel officer. If you belong to a trade union, you can contact your union representative.

If you cannot resolve the matter informally, you can follow the grievance procedure in your contract of employment.

Keep a written record of any harassment to show your employer.

If you're unhappy with the way your employer deals with your complaint, you can take your case to an Industrial Tribunal.

If you think that you were not offered a job because of your sexual orientation, or you have been sacked because of your sexual orientation, you can take your case to an Industrial Tribunal, regardless of how long you've worked there.

Where you can get help

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment issues. You can contact them by calling the Enquiry line on 028 9050 0600 or by using the text phone by texting 028 9050 0589.

Your local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) can provide free and impartial advice. 

If you are a member of a trade union, you can get help, advice and support from them.

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