Job market / Positive action

Challenging discrimination: a guide to ‘positive action’ in employment

You may have heard the term “positive action” and wondered what it was or who might benefit from it.  This post aims to give you some background information and to help you decide if it might be relevant to you.

The paper written as discrimination is torn on wood. Concept of abolition of discrimination.The Equality Act 2010 introduced a number of changes to reduce discrimination for individuals with protected characteristics, one of which was the ability to take positive action in relation to recruitment and promotion.  The protected characteristics are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation.

These voluntary positive action measures must aim to:

  • Alleviate disadvantage experienced by people who share a protected characteristics; or
  • Reduce underrepresentation in relation to particular activities; or
  • Meet particular needs.

Such measures must be proportionate to achieving the aim. Examples of positive action measures might include for example, the use of targeted advertising to encourage underrepresented groups to apply to work with an organisation; taking steps to remove barriers for groups of individual underrepresented in particular areas; providing alternative processes to meet different needs. 

Diversity and toleranceSo what does this mean for students?  If a sector or employer has undertaken statistical analysis which shows that a group with a protected characteristic is under represented they can take positive action to try to level the playing field.  This is most commonly seen with employers offering programmes to specific groups of students to encourage them to apply to the sector and may include mentoring or adjustments to the recruitment process as appropriate.  This is all allowed under the legislation.

What is not allowed?

An employer cannot positively discriminate in the recruitment process.  In other words if one applicant is deemed to be more capable of undertaking the role than a second applicant with a protected characteristic, the employer cannot offer the job to the second applicant just because it would address under-representation.  This is very important to note as students with protected characteristics may be reluctant to engage with a positive action programme believing that it will give them an unfair advantage.  In reality, it can only come into play if they are equal in merit and there is under representation in the field.  Positive action is not about giving jobs to less capable applicants.

Some examples

Gender equalityAn example of how this might play out in graduate recruitment would be where the technology sector identified that the proportion of women being recruited into the industry was lower than the number of students studying technology related subjects.  It would be appropriate for employers to encourage females to apply to the industry and to support their personal development to help them succeed.  Employers such as the BBC offer internship programmes which are only open to students from a protected characteristic group in order to increase the diversity of their staff to be reflective of society.

Some employers are part of the two ticks scheme which guarantees applicants an interview if they have a diagnosed disability and meet the requirements of the role.  This again encourages applicants to feel supported in their application and to request reasonable adjustments. Here are just a few highlights:

Women in Technology

myPlusStudent Club – supporting students with disabilities

Diversity Careers

MyGWork Business Community – for LGBT students

If you would like to find out more about positive action schemes keep an eye on your careers service which will often help to promote such initiatives.  And if you’re unsure if a scheme is right for you, talk it through with someone impartial such as a careers practitioner.  TargetJobs has some useful information on diversity and organisations linked to the specific protected characteristic often have great advice for students and links with employers.  At Warwick we have pulled together the relevant information on our website.

“We are committed to making sure that the opportunities within our firm are equally accessible for everyone – regardless of background or gender”, Dave Dunckley CEO Grant Thornton.




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