Law guide: Workplace

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Discrimination in the workplace

Discrimination in the workplace


Discrimination means treating some people differently from others. It isn't always unlawful – and in the workplace it is common as employees get different benefits and are paid different wages depending on their status and skills. However, some kinds of discrimination are unlawful. Anti-discrimination law in the employment area protects you if you are a full time, part time or fixed term worker or employee, a former employee or an applicant for a job. It also protects you if you are not an employee as such, but are a contract worker, partner or office-holder (such as a director).

What is unlawful discrimination?

Unlawful discrimination happens when an employer treats you less favourably than other employees on the basis of one or more of the following protected characteristics:

  • Sex – which includes gender, marital status (if you are married), civil partnership status (if you have entered into one), transsexual status and gender reassignment
  • Pregnancy and maternity – which includes illness as a result of pregnancy and the right to statutory maternity leave
  • Race – which includes ethnic origin, national origin, colour and nationality
  • Religious belief and political opinion– which includes religion and philosophical beliefs
  • Sexual orientation – which includes your orientation towards people of the same sex, people of the opposite sex, or people both of the opposite and same sex as you
  • Age
  • Disability – which is any physical or mental impairment that has a long term and substantial effect on your ability to perform your day-to-day activities

If your employer treats you less favourably on the basis of any of these protected characteristics, you may be able to take action. If your employer treats you unfairly for any other reason, this is not unlawful discrimination, but you may still be able to do something about it (please see our article on 'grievances').

Forms of discrimination

Legislation protects employees against different forms of discrimination.

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination happens when an employer treats you less favourably because of one or more of the protected characteristics when compared with another worker in similar circumstances, but who does not share that protected characteristic with you.

For example, you are being discriminated against if, because of your gender, you are treated less favourably than another employee of the opposite gender, whose circumstances are similar to yours. Sometimes, what looks like direct discrimination might not be unlawful if the discrimination is related to a protected characteristic which is essential to enable the employee to do the job successfully.

Your employer can still be found liable for direct discrimination even if there was no intention to discriminate against you. Employers can only defend claims for direct discrimination on the grounds that no discrimination took place at all, except in claims for direct age discrimination, which can be defended on the grounds that the employer's actions were justified (see below).

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination is where an employer's formal or informal workplace policies, practices or criteria put people with a particular protected characteristic at a disadvantage, compared to those who do not share that particular protected characteristic. It does not matter whether or not this has been done intentionally.

For example, saying that applicants for a job must be clean shaven puts members of some religious groups at a disadvantage.

Your employer can defend a claim of indirect discrimination by 'justifying' it. This means that they must show that the use of the unlawful working practice, provision or criteria is a proportionate means to achieve a legitimate aim.

For example, in the above scenario, the condition that applicants must be clean shaven might be 'a proportionate means to achieve a legitimate aim' if the job involved handling food and it could be shown that having a beard or moustache was a genuine hygiene risk. Your employer will also need to show that this has been applied consistently in its recruitment practice.

Indirect discrimination does not apply to disability discrimination. Instead of that, two other forms of discrimination are applicable only to disability discrimination:

  • Disability-related discrimination
  • Failure by the employer to make reasonable adjustments.

For more information, see our 'Disability Discrimination' section


Harassment in the workplace happens when someone's conduct has the purpose or effect of violating another's dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment on the basis of any of the above protected characteristics. This is the case, for example, if someone uses sexist language towards you and you find such language humiliating, or if you work in an open-plan office and sexist language that you find degrading is generally used.

Note that you will not be protected by the anti-discrimination regulations if you are over sensitive and unreasonably take offence to an innocent comment.

If the harassment is not on one of the discrimination grounds above, it will not be harassment in terms of the anti-discrimination laws, but it might still be unlawful as all employers have an obligation to ensure their employees can carry out their duties without harassment or disruption from fellow workers. The employer could in certain circumstances be held liable for the actions of harassment of its employees.

The Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 could, in exceptional cases, where the unwanted conduct is 'oppressive and unacceptable' and where it could sustain criminal liability, also protect you against harassment. Such harassment must, however, result from a course of action (i.e. at least 2 incidents) which causes you distress. In this instance, you may also be able to make your employer vicariously liable for the oppressive and unacceptable actions of any of its employees towards you. Under this Act, you have 6 years after the harassment incident to bring your claim in a county or high court (where you can apply for legal aid), while under the anti-discrimination laws you have 3 months to lodge your claim with an Industrial Tribunal (where legal aid is not available).


You might be subjected to bullying at work. Often an employer will have separate policies covering the steps you should take in the event that you are subjected to bullying. Bullying is similar to harassment except that it normally happens in the presence of other colleagues, although it can also happen in writing, by fax or email, or over the phone. The employee suffering the bullying is often someone in a less senior position than the bully. You would not bring a claim for bullying as such but would bring a claim under harassment. If, however, you are forced to resign as a result of the bullying, you might have a constructive dismissal claim against your employer.

See also our article: 'Bullying in the workplace'.


Victimisation is where your employer or co-worker treats you less favourably than they would treat others, because:

  • You have exercised, threatened to exercise, or intend to exercise your legal rights to not be discriminated against
  • You have exercised, threatened to exercise, or intend to exercise your rights under certain equal pay and pensions legislation
  • You have given, threatened to give, or are intending to give evidence or information in connection with proceedings relating to a protected characteristic, brought against your employer or a co-worker by another person
  • You have done anything in relation to your employer or a co-worker, or intend or have threatened to do so, under, or by reference to, the discrimination laws, or equal pay or pensions legislation.
  • You have alleged, or have threatened or intend to allege, that your employer or a co-worker has contravened any of the discrimination laws, or the equal pay or pensions legislation.

There are separate laws which protect you against suffering a detriment because you are involved with what is called 'protected acts'. Some of these protected acts relate to:

  • Trade union activities
  • Health and safety issues
  • Exercise of maternity related rights, such as time off for antenatal care
  • Exercise of family related rights, such as parental and paternity leave
  • Taking time off to act as companion to a worker who is facing a disciplinary procedure or grievance procedure
  • Taking time off work for jury service
  • Whistleblowing (i.e. to inform the relevant authorities of an underhand or illegal practice)
  • Claiming rights under the Working Time Regulations
  • Claiming rights under the national minimum wage rules

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