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Social Class: The next protected characteristic?

25-08-2023

Home / Insights / Social Class: The next protected characteristic?

In this article, we delve into the compelling question of whether social class should be recognised as a protected characteristic. Presently, we’ll examine the current legal landscape and explore the potential impact of extending protection to social class.

The Current Legal Landscape 

The Equality Act 2010 (EqA) serves as a legal fortress, shielding individuals from workplace and societal discrimination based on nine protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. 

The EqA goes further by covering association and perception. This means protection extends beyond personal possession of a characteristic – it includes those perceived or associated with it. This expansive approach offers elevated protection against discrimination in various life aspects.

Addressing Social Class: A Missing Piece? 

Under the Equality Act, social class is not a protected characteristic. In the UK, workplace social inequality looms large. A mere 7% attend independent fee-paying schools, yet about 71% of top military officers, 75% of top judges, 51% of leading journalists, and 61% of top doctors hail from such educational backgrounds. Ponder this: Two babies born on the same day, in the same hospital, yet destined for vastly different lives due to their parents’ circumstances. One heads to a council flat, while the other to a mansion. From that point, far too often, life’s path is predefined. 

When the burden of crippling university fees and the cost-of-living crisis is added, the hurdles for those from working-class backgrounds skyrocket. Scholarships are few and far between, hardly making a dent in the pursuit of social mobility. 

A Call for Change 

In 2020, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) raised its voice, advocating for social class to be recognised as the tenth protected characteristic within the Equality Act. The aspiration? To foster a more inclusive work environment for those whose roles are entangled with their social class. When selecting a workplace, equality and diversity stand paramount. Should workplace parity be undermined by actions linked to social class, a quandary arises. 

Cyprus and India have already laid down constitutional restrictions on class-based discrimination, shedding light on a potential UK lag in this domain. This beckons us to consider whether the time has come for the UK to bridge this gap and align itself with global strides toward social equality. 

Indirect Discrimination

Unravelling the layers of indirect discrimination unveils a complex scenario. It occurs when an employer applies a provision, criterion, or practice (PCP) applicable to everyone, including those with protected characteristics. However, this PCP disproportionately disadvantages those with such characteristics, putting them at a particular disadvantage. When this imbalance occurs, and the PCP isn’t deemed proportionate in achieving a legitimate aim, a case of indirect discrimination emerges. 

Examining the Scenario 

Consider a case where the requirement to have attended a Russell Group university is set. This seemingly innocuous criterion could potentially disadvantage individuals from working-class backgrounds – both individually and as a group. Naturally, employers strive for the most qualified candidates. This is likely to be their legitimate aim. Yet, when dismissal or refusal to employ is based on university attended or even accent, the onus shifts. Proving proportionality to a legitimate aim becomes the employer’s challenge. Given the hurdles overcome by individuals from working-class backgrounds to attain qualifications, this can indeed pose a fertile ground of litigation should social class become a protected characteristic.

The Pursuit of ‘Well-Roundedness’ 

In the realm of recruitment, the quest for ‘well-rounded’ candidates is common. This often translates to seeking candidates with diverse experiences, possibly including gap years or travel. But here’s the twist: Such expectations can disadvantage those from working-class backgrounds. Affording a gap year or extensive travel might be financially out of reach for many, rendering them seemingly ‘less well-rounded’ solely due to their socioeconomic status. 

Harassment: Beyond the Workplace 

Stepping outside the workplace, the echoes of social class discrimination resonate. Football stadiums, microcosms of society, bear witness to this reality. Chants like “feed the scousers” and “sign on, sign on, you’ll never get a job” reverberate among Liverpool fans. These taunts hark back to the 1980s, a time of rampant unemployment in Liverpool. The chants subtly imply poverty, reflecting a deeper societal issue. 

Considering the recent arrests for ‘tragedy’ chanting by Chelsea fans over Hillsborough, one wonders: Shouldn’t the scope broaden to include mockery of the working class or poverty? Particularly in times of cost-of-living crises, fostering respect and empathy in public discourse seems paramount. 

Everyday language wields power, often unintentionally reinforcing societal divisions. Terms like “Chav,” “Toff,” “bin dippers,” or even “bog standard comprehensive” target individuals solely based on their socioeconomic backgrounds. This language-driven disparity highlights the significance of acknowledging and dismantling stereotypes woven into our lexicon. 

Defining Social Class: A Legal Puzzle 

To etch social class into a legal framework is to decipher the intricate tapestry of society. Sociologists define it as the classification of individuals based on occupation, where doctors, lawyers, and university professors are given greater status than unskilled labourers. Within these roles reside power, influence, and wealth – each marking distinct societal positions. 

Employers often seek individuals with eloquence and private-school education, be it through direct or indirect means. An individual’s socioeconomic status, a blend of factors like household income, educational level, occupation prestige, and place of residence, all play pivotal roles in defining their social class. 

Yet, social class isn’t always immediately discernible. The labyrinth of its intricacies can confound law drafters tasked with its definition. Consider: Should someone who was once socioeconomically disadvantaged but now stands on firmer ground still be protected? The foggy boundaries of social class beg introspection. 

Crafting a Legal Framework 

While the vagueness of social class poses challenges, the case of Grainger Plc v Nicholson [2010] ICR 360, EAT, offers a glimmer of hope. This precedent showcases the courts’ ability to weave legal frameworks for inherently intricate concepts. The same could be said with employee status where overtime case law has defined what constitutes employee using a number of factors.  

In Pursuit of Clarity 

Defining social class within a legal scaffold demands clarity. I advocate considering low income, limited wealth, material deprivation, area deprivation, and even the occupational backgrounds of an employee’s parents during their teenage years. These measurable categories could lay the groundwork for a coherent framework, one that weaves the nuances of social class into the fabric of the Equality Act and allow case law to evolve over time 

In the Realm of Employment Law 

Within the realm of employment law, a significant gap persists. Currently, the protection of social class in workplaces remains an optional pursuit. ‘Classism’ stands unaccountable, as it isn’t recognised as an actionable concept. 

Employers currently hold the power to discriminate without legal ramifications. Consider this: Selecting candidates based on the university they attended, like favouring Russell Group graduates, inherently narrows opportunities for those from lower social classes. This is likely to likely to limit social mobility.

Unseen Barriers 

The disparity is glaring, particularly in fields like law firms. Working-class individuals and those hailing from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are noticeably underrepresented. Can this be deemed discriminatory? My stance is yes. Social class often silently shapes career trajectories, leading to imbalances. 

A failure to ascend to senior positions despite earnest endeavours widens the gap between lower-class and middle-class employees. To bridge this divide, workplaces must nurture a culture of acknowledgement, addressing the impacts social class can wield.

A Vision of Change 

Why not shift the lens to holistic assessment during hiring? Instances of ‘blind recruitment’ come to mind – where applications are reviewed without personal identifiers, focusing solely on skills and attributes. If social class were a protected characteristic within the Equality Act, it would pave the way for fairer policies, fostering inclusivity. This transformation would catalyse a surge of conscientious hiring managers.

A Call for Inclusion 

While other protected characteristics may overlap, social class can stand distinctly alone in discrimination debates. This argues for its unique position within the Equality Act. 

Imagine if social class found protection under the Equality Act. The outcome? A workforce more inclusive, meritocratic, and socially mobile. This transformation reaps rewards for employers too – a workforce daring to dream, a diverse pool of insights, steering decisions with a broader perspective and positively impacting their clientele. 

In the tapestry of law and equity, introducing social class as a safeguard could weave a fabric of unprecedented inclusiveness. An Act with the power to elevate workplaces, society, and the aspirations of individuals seeking to rise above the confines of circumstance. 


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  • News Author:Michael Michaeloudis | Tariro Carmel Nyoka | Berin Karaaslan

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