The Equality Act 2010 gives all employees the right to be treated fairly at work. That means you should not suffer discrimination in the workplace on grounds of ageracesexdisabilitysexual orientationgender reassignmentpregnancyreligionbeliefs or whether you are in a marriage or civil partnership.

Black and white image of pregnant woman holding stomach

Under the Act, these personal attributes are designated as protected characteristics. It is usually against the law to treat someone less favourably than someone else or unfairly based on a protected characteristic.

Common examples of discrimination in the workplace include:

  • pay discrimination, e.g. when a woman is paid less than a man for doing a comparable job;
  • disability discrimination, e.g. if a workplace doesn’t have disabled facilities, making it impossible for someone with a disability to work there;
  • discrimination based on an employee’s sexuality, e.g. refusing to employ someone because they are gay.

However, discrimination can be a complex subject; it may not always be easy to identify.

Discrimination in the workplace does not have to be intentional or deliberate to breach your rights. It is also possible for you to be discriminated against directly and indirectly.

Direct discrimination

If you are someone with a protected characteristic, but you are treated less favourably because of that characteristic, this amounts to direct discrimination.

An example of this would be a situation in which an employee wasn’t offered a job or promotion because they’re a woman.

Employee experiencing discrimination at work due to being a woman

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination occurs where there is a policy, rule or requirement at work that unjustifiably puts you and other people sharing your protected characteristic at a disadvantage compared to others. In other words, although you are treated the same as everyone else, you are put at a disadvantage or it has a negative effect on you.

An example of indirect discrimination is an employer stating that all employees must work on Saturdays – even those of the Jewish faith, for whom it is a religious day.

Other forms of discrimination in the workplace

Being treated unfairly because of your association with someone else who has a protected characteristic may also amount to discriminatory behaviour. For example, a heterosexual employee who does not receive a promotion because they socialise with gay colleagues. Likewise, if your employer treated you unfairly because they thought you were gay, even if you’re not, is a form of discrimination.

If you are discriminated against because you have provided your support to someone who has been, or is being, discriminated against, this counts as victimisation which is also unlawful.

Cartoon of discrimination in the workplace


Although slightly different to discrimination, unwanted behaviour that causes offence, humiliation or can be construed as intimidating may amount to harassment.

Harassment includes rude jokes, comments about your appearance, sexual innuendos, or lewd comments communicated as gestures, in speech, or written words: including emails and social media posts.

What areas of your working life are protected?

You are protected from discrimination in all areas of your working life, including:

  • Recruitment
  • Training
  • Employment terms and conditions
  • Salary and benefits
  • Promotion, transfer and other advancement opportunities
  • Redundancy
  • Dismissal

What is not counted as discrimination in the workplace?

Discrimination law is not always straightforward. Sometimes you may be treated in a way that appears to be discriminatory but isn’t. This may be the case if your employer has good reason for their actions and can justify the perceived discrimination.

For example, in the case of a women’s refuge housing vulnerable women, it may be considered essential to only employ female workers.

There may also be occasions when it is lawful to discriminate against an individual due to a disability, but only if the employer can justify their actions on the grounds of health and safety or due to unavoidable business reasons.

However, as a disabled person, you do have the same rights as other workers. Your employer must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to help you, where possible.

Close up of disabled employee in wheelchair

What you should do about discrimination in the workplace

There are various actions an employee can take if they believe they’ve been discriminated against at work. It’s best to start by raising the matter informally with your employer, manager or HR department. Issues can be resolved quickly this way: your employer may choose to change working conditions or to speak with the other involved parties.

If the matter cannot be resolved informally, you should raise it formally with your employer and follow their grievance procedure. The employer should then investigate the matter thoroughly.

If you are unhappy with the outcome, consider seeking legal advice. As specialist employment law experts, Springhouse Solicitors are well positioned to advise you on other steps you can take and whether you should make a claim in the Employment Tribunal for discrimination in the workplace.

Like to know more? Please get in touch with us today.

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