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What discrimination means


Mon 26 February, 2018

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Understanding discrimination in the workplace

 At some stage nearly all employers will have to deal with an allegation from a disgruntled member of staff and establishing the exact nature of the complaint is always crucial.

When emotions are running high accusations can be made that do not always accurately reflect the treatment the person on the receiving end has suffered.

Perhaps one of the most common examples is that employees who have been bullied will also allege that they have been harassed, but there is a difference.

Bullying does not have a legal definition in the Equality Act while the law defines harassment  as unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic (1).

It is also not uncommon for aggrieved workers to allege they have suffered discrimination. Understanding, recognising and dealing with discrimination in the workplace is essential.

Discrimination means treating a person unfairly because of who they are or because they possess certain characteristics. If you have been treated differently from other people only because of who you are or because you possess certain characteristics, you may have been discriminated against.

It is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of (2):

·   Age

·   Being or becoming a transsexual person

·   Being married or in a civil partnership

·   Being pregnant or on maternity leave

·   Disability

·   Race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin

·   Religion, belief or lack of religion/belief

·   Sex

·   Sexual orientation


Every employee has at least some of the characteristics such as age, race or gender; the Act protects every person from being discriminated against.

If any worker is treated unfavourably because someone thinks they belong to a particular group of people with protected characteristics, this is also unlawful discrimination.

There are different types of discrimination:

Direct Discrimination

If a person with a protected characteristic is treated less favourably than others, it is direct discrimination (3). For example – a female candidate for promotion with all of the required qualifications and experience fails to get an interview, but a male candidate with fewer qualifications does.

Indirect discrimination

Can occur as a result of a rule or policy that puts an employee at a disadvantage as compared to others (4). For example – If employees are compelled to work on Sunday it will put Christians at a distinct disadvantage as it is a day of worship for Christians.

Discrimination by Association

Is being treated unfairly because someone you know or are associated with has a protected characteristic (5). For example – a flexible working request to allow you to meet your care responsibilities for a disabled relative is unfairly refused.


Is unwanted behaviour that makes another person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated (6). For example – female workers passing sexual comments or telling unwelcome jokes within earshot of a male colleague can constitute harassment.


Is when a person is treated unfavourably after complaining about discrimination or having supported a fellow worker who has done so. For example – an employee is deliberately denied an opportunity to advance after making a complaint of racism against their boss.

Dealing with any allegation of discrimination quickly and fairly can prevent employees making an employment tribunal claim against an employer. There is currently no limit on the compensation that can be awarded for a successful discrimination claim.

Having to defend any tribunal claim can be protracted, costly and challenging, and it can damage the reputation of a business.

Having an established, recognised and effective procedure in place to handle discrimination complaints is in everyone’s best interests.

It should be made clear how employees can report a complaint, the process that will be followed once they have done so and what action may be taken in relation to the matter. It will provide a reassurance to employees that they will be taken seriously if they make a complaint about unlawful discrimination.


1. Bullying, harassment, victimisation: What’s the difference? [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2018 Feb 25]. Available from:

2.  Discrimination: your rights - GOV.UK [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 25]. Available from:

3.  Direct discrimination [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 25]. Available from:

4. Indirect discrimination [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 25]. Available from:

5. Understanding discrimination by association and perception. 2015 Jul 15 [cited 2018 Feb 26]; Available from:

6. Harassment [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 26]. Available from:




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