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Everyone has the right to be treated fairly at work. Unfortunately, there are times when other people may not respect this right. In cases where this is due to a ‘protected characteristic’, this is classed as discrimination.

Discrimination occurs when you are treated differently in the workplace on the basis of one or more of what is termed ‘protected characteristics’. These characteristics are defined under law in the Equality Act 2010.

As explained in the Act, it is illegal for anyone to discriminate against another person on the basis of:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender
  • marriage or civil partnership
  • pregnancy or having a child
  • race, including their nationality, skin colour or ethnic or national origins
  • religion or other strongly-held belief (or lack thereof)
  • sexual orientation
  • undergoing, having undergone or planning to undergo gender reassignment

It is important to note that you do not actually need to possess a specific characteristic to be discriminated against for it; if somebody believes, for example, that you are gay, and treats you differently as a result, this can still count as discrimination even if you are not actually gay.

It is also possible to be discriminated against because you are closely associated with a person with a protected characteristic. For example, if you have a disabled child, or are married to someone of a particular nationality, and you are treated poorly in the workplace because of this, this counts as discrimination.

Types of discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 defines four different types of discrimination under the law.

The first of these is direct discrimination, which is the most obvious type. This is where people with a protected characteristic are treated less favourably than others in the workplace, for no other reason than the fact they have that characteristic.

If you are a victim of direct discrimination, you may find that an employer treats you unfairly in comparison to other people when it comes to:

  • getting hired in the first place
  • wages and perks
  • the terms and conditions of your contract
  • opportunities for training and promotion
  • dismissal and redundancy

An example could be a boss refusing to promote a skilled female worker and instead offering a senior role to a male employee who is less qualified for the position.

Another form of discrimination, which can be less obvious, is indirect discrimination. This happens when an employer lays down rules which somehow put people with certain protected characteristics at a disadvantage. Such rules may seem fair on the surface as they technically apply to everyone, but they actually have a more severe outcome for individuals belonging to certain groups and therefore count as discrimination.

An example of indirect discrimination would be a ban on headwear in the workplace, which might seem reasonable until you consider that some religions call for their followers to keep their heads covered in some way. There could, of course, be valid reasons for an employer to bring in such a policy, but they must consider how it may affect employees and consider other ways to achieve the same goal without putting particular groups at a disadvantage.

Harassment is another type of discrimination in the workplace. This is when someone faces bullying over one of the protected characteristics listed above. Bullying is defined as ‘unwanted conduct’ and can take many forms, including direct insults, people talking behind your back, and general poor treatment from others.

As harassment is against the law, if you are experiencing this kind of unwanted conduct in the workplace you should report it to your manager or HR department. Your employer is responsible for ensuring harassment does not occur within their company, and are legally required to act if you report this kind of behaviour to them. You can make a complaint about being harassed even if the perpetrator does not work for the company; for example, if they are a customer or someone from another company.

Victimisation is the fourth kind of discrimination, and this is when someone is treated badly because they have taken action under the Equality Act, or supported someone who did. This is essentially discrimination which arises from complaining against a previous incident of discrimination.

Is discrimination ever acceptable?

It is permissible for an employer to refuse to offer a job to a person from a certain group because they would be unsuited to the role. However, it is important for them to ensure that they stick to actual job requirements, rather than relying on stereotypes or assumptions.

For example, people under 18 are not legally allowed to sell alcohol, so it would not be classed as age discrimination if an employer refuses to hire an under-18 for a job where selling alcohol is essential to the role.

However, if an employer refused to employ a member of the Muslim faith under the assumption that they would refuse to handle alcohol, this would count as discrimination, as not all Muslims would have an issue with this.

It would also be discrimination if an employer excluded some applicants with the excuse that handling alcohol was an essential part of the role, when it was actually only a minor duty which could easily be dealt with by someone else. If an employer plans to exclude certain people from a role, they must only do so on the basis of tasks which are actually vital to the job at hand.

Employers are also allowed to discriminate in favour of people who possess a protected characteristic in certain circumstances. If they believe that people with a particular protected characteristic are at a disadvantage because of it, that they have different needs because of the characteristic, or that there is a disproportionately low number of people with that characteristic involved in a certain activity (for example, a specific field or industry), they may take action in favour of them.

This means that they can lean towards hiring job applicants with a protected characteristic, or work towards meeting their specific needs, for instance. An example would be a primary school looking to hire male teachers if the majority of their staff is currently women.

What to do if you think you have been discriminated against

If you believe you have been discriminated against at work, you should first informally discuss the matter with your employer. You may wish to talk to your manager or contact your HR department over the issue.

If your problem is not resolved, you should contact Acas, Citizens Advice or a representative from your trade union. They will help advise you on your next steps and take a discrimination claim to an employment tribunal if necessary.

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