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HIV and the workplace:
Best practice for employers

HIV and the workplace: Best practice for employers


The majority of people living with HIV are of working age but many face discrimination at work. In this article, Becky Spencer explains what employers can do to support workers who are affected by HIV.

December 1 is World Aids Day. Founded in 1988, the day is a time to stand in solidarity with the 39 million people around the world who are living with HIV, as well as a time to remember all those who have lost their lives to the disease since the virus was first identified in the 1980s.

While there is still no cure for HIV, thanks to medical advances there are now effective treatments that enable people with HIV to live a long and healthy life. The vast majority of the estimated 107,000 people in the UK who are living with HIV have received a diagnosis and are on this life-saving treatment.

What is HIV?

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It is a virus that damages the cells in the immune system, weakening a person’s ability to fight everyday infections and disease. HIV treatment works by stopping the virus from reproducing and reducing the amount of virus in the blood to what is called an ‘undetectable’ level. This means that the virus is still there, but it is in such small amounts that it can’t be passed on to anyone else. It also means that the immune system is protected from the virus. It usually takes between three to six months for someone to become undetectable once they start treatment. 97 per cent of people diagnosed with HIV and on treatment in the UK are virally suppressed and can’t pass on HIV.  

Discrimination and employers’ duties

The fact that people on effective HIV treatment can’t pass on the virus is undeniably life-changing for people living with the virus, however there is still much public misunderstanding about HIV which means many face discrimination and stigma in different areas of their life.

The majority of people living with HIV are of working age (16-64).  In a survey carried out by the Terrence Higgins Trust, 30 per cent of people living with HIV who were in employment had experienced discrimination in the workplace; much of this is due to ignorance about HIV.

Anyone diagnosed with HIV has protection under The Equality Act 2010. The Act applies in England, Wales and Scotland and makes it unlawful to discriminate against anyone because of a ‘protected characteristic’ which includes a disability. All people diagnosed with HIV are considered to be ‘disabled’ under the Act regardless of their health status.

The Act gives people diagnosed with HIV protection against discrimination in many aspects of employment, including: the recruitment process; opportunities for training and promotion; and in the way they are treated by their employer and colleagues.

By law, all employers must:

  • Make sure they do not unfairly discriminate in any aspect of work
  • Take steps to prevent discrimination in their workplace
  • Do all they reasonably can to protect people from discrimination by others
  • Look after the wellbeing of their employees – this is called a 'duty of care'.

Not doing these things could cause harm and distress, and could result in discrimination complaints and employment tribunal claims.

An employer can be held responsible not just for the discriminatory actions of the management or of the company itself but also for the behaviour of other employees if the employer cannot show that they took steps to try to prevent it happening. This is called 'vicarious liability'.

Reasonable adjustments

Under the Equality Act, people with a ‘protected characteristic’ such as disability have the right to request reasonable adjustments to their way of working or the workplace so they can carry out their job without being disadvantaged because of their disability. According to the Terrence Higgins Trust, for people with HIV, the most commonly requested adjustments tend to be time off for clinic appointments, changes in hours worked and changes to start or finish times.

There is no duty on a job applicant/employee to disclose details of their health condition or disability to an employer. However, in most cases, employers only have a duty to make reasonable adjustments once they are aware that an employee/job applicant has a disability under the Act. If a person discloses their HIV status to an employer,  that information is confidential and should not be shared without the person’s consent.

Best practice in the workplace

  • Employers should make sure they have proper policies and procedures in place to support HIV positive employees  and all employees with a ‘disability’ under the Equality Act 2010.
  • Ensure that all staff are provided with diversity and equality training, which includes information about HIV and the importance of confidentiality at work.
  • Record employees’ leave related to their HIV status as ‘disability leave’, keeping this separate from general sick leave.
  • Ensure that you have a harassment policy in place and that you act quickly to address any incident of harassment in your workplace.
  • Make sure that you have information available about reasonable adjustments and support staff should they wish to access these.
  • Ensure that you have a clear informal and formal grievance procedure in place to assist people who feel that they have been subjected to discrimination in the workplace.
  • Help to end stigma and discrimination by improving staff knowledge about HIV. Many of the potential workplace problems associated with HIV stem from a lack of understanding of how the virus is passed on. HIV is not passed on easily from one person to another. It does not spread through the air like cold and flu viruses. There is no risk in normal social or work contact with an HIV-infected person. HIV cannot be transmitted through sweat, urine or saliva. People cannot become infected through ordinary day-to-day contact such as kissing, hugging, shaking hands, or sharing personal objects, food or water. People on effective HIV treatment, which is the majority of people with HIV in the UK, can’t pass it on.
  • Raise awareness of HIV by marking World AIDS Day on December 1.

Becky Spencer is a writer and editor on health and safety and accident prevention at work, in the home, during leisure activities and on the road. She was previously Managing Editor of RoSPA’s occupational safety & health journals and is currently editor of the European Association for Injury Prevention & Safety Promotion (EuroSafe) newsletter.


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