HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) weakens the body’s immune system and can progress to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which interferes with the immune system and makes people susceptible to infections. Although HIV cannot be cured, it can be effectively treated (if diagnosed early) so that HIV may not progress to AIDS. This means that the 107,000+ people living with HIV in the UK (figures from Public Health England, 2013) can continue to be productive members of the workforce.
There is no obligation on employees to tell their employers about their HIV status except in certain professions (e.g. surgery or dentistry where there is a risk of exposure to bodily fluids or blood). In some jobs, workers may actually face the risk of HIV infection through accidental direct exposure to infected blood (e.g. some healthcare workers and laboratory technicians) mainly as a result of an accident with a needle/syringe.
The availability of antiviral therapy (ARV therapy) means that most people who are HIV positive should not become too ill to work. However, if HIV does become symptomatic (i.e. the person starts experiencing related infections) it may be helpful to disclose HIV status as the person may require time off work due to illness or may require certain adjustments to be made to their job role, hours of work, etc. in order to allow them to continue working.
From an employer’s perspective, the most important thing is to ensure that a person with HIV is not discriminated against in the workplace. People living with HIV are legally protected from discrimination in the workplace and during recruitment under the Equality Act 2010, which, for example, prohibits the use of pre-employment health questionnaires before the offer of a job has been made.
Discrimination in the workplace can take various forms, including:
- Direct discrimination (e.g. when an employer treats an HIV-positive employee less favourably than others).
- Indirect discrimination (e.g. when conditions or rules in the workplace disadvantage HIV-positive employees).
- Associative discrimination (e.g. when a person suffers discrimination because of their association with a person who has been diagnosed with HIV).
- Harassment (e.g. offensive or intimidating behaviour intended to make a person’s existence in the workplace difficult or untenable).
- Victimisation (e.g. unfair treatment of an HIV-positive employee who has made a complaint about harassment in the workplace).
Employers need to be aware of their responsibilities towards employees with HIV in order to ensure that they are treated fairly and with dignity. Organisations should have the right procedures in place to manage complaints about harassment or mistreatment in the workplace (which can also help avoid costly and complex tribunal cases). Staff should be provided with information on diversity and equality, and awareness of HIV should be raised within the organisation in order to prevent discrimination and stigma.
If an employee with HIV becomes too unwell to continue their job role, employers should try to find alternative work that may be more suitable. However, employers are not legally-bound to create more suitable employment if there is nothing else available in the organisation or if no reasonable adjustments can be made to the role to permit the person to continue. In this case (as with any other illness) the employer is entitled to terminate the employee’s employment.