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First Published Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Article Date: 28 Apr 2009

A coalition of charities is calling for an amendment to the Equality Bill to reduce major discrimination faced by job seekers with ‘invisible’ conditions such as mental illness or HIV.

Leading mental health charity Rethink, HIV and sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust and NAT (National AIDS Trust) want to see health-related questions banned until after a job offer has been made. The only exception would be for questions directly related to the position applied for. Employers would still be able to ask in advance about conditions which would affect a candidate’s ability to undertake that particular role.

Under the current system, employers can ask an applicant whether they have a disability, are taking medication or have a medical condition – even if it has no relevance to the job. This has led to “unacceptable under-the-counter discrimination” say the charities, and offered a “licence to discriminate” for bad bosses.

In the United States and a significant number of EU member states, pre-interview disclosure is against the law, offering significant protection to people with disabilities and long-term medical conditions.

Paul Corry, Rethink Director of Public Affairs, says: “Sadly, employers often do not understand that someone with a mental illness can have a fulfilling career and be an asset to their organisation. Many people have to lie on application forms just to get an interview or are put off applying all together. Others who are up-front about their medical history tell us that it is almost impossible to find a job.”

He adds: “Too many people are consigned to unemployment, and poverty through no fault of their own but simply as a result of employers’ prejudice. The Deputy Prime Minister has a chance to put this right, but has left millions of people with mental illness between a rock and a hard place. The Equality Bill must address this issue.”

Sir Nick Partridge, Chief Executive at Terrence Higgins Trust, says: “If someone has a condition which won’t affect their ability to do a job there’s no reason it should be declared before an offer is made. Currently someone with HIV might be the best candidate but could be turned down because an employer makes assumptions about their health. We want to see a level playing field, where someone with a stigmatised condition has an equal chance of getting a job. Employment decisions should be based on ability, not prejudice.”

Deborah Jack, Chief Executive of NAT, says: “In a difficult economic climate and with a reformed benefits system it is more important than ever to remove the discrimination which prevents so many with disabilities from entering paid employment. Irrelevant and intrusive questions deter people from applying for jobs and provide opportunities for unfairness and prejudice. We need to use the Equality Bill to bring the UK into line with international best practice around recruitment and disability.”

If someone lies in a job application in relation to their health status and this is later discovered, they could lose the job. Research shows that one in ten employers has withdrawn a job offer and seven per cent of employers have dismissed an employee for this reason.

The charities say a change in the law would help to reduce discrimination and increase the number of people with HIV and mental illness in work.


– A recent Rethink survey of more than 3,000 mental health service users found that half of the respondents felt that they had to hide their mental health problems and 41% were put off even applying for jobs because of the fear of discrimination from employers.

– It is estimated that fewer than 50% of people diagnosed with HIV are in paid employment. People with mental illness actually have the highest ‘want to work’ rate of all disabled people, but the actual employment rate for this group is one of the lowest – 13.3% compared to 59% for those with difficulty hearing.

– The Labour Market Outlook: quarterly survey report – Autumn 2007′ (2007) Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reveals that one in ten employers has withdrawn a job offer because the applicant had lied or misrepresented their health situation on the health-screening questionnaire. Seven per cent of employers have dismissed an employee while in employment for the same reason. Withdrawn job offers or dismissal on these grounds is twice as common in large organisations.

– The joint submission to the Work and Pensions Committee from NAT, THT and Rethink on the issue of pre-employment questionnaire is available here.

Terrence Higgins Trust


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