Discrimination in the workplace can be defined as the unfair treatment of an employee based on a protected characteristic.

There are nine protected characteristics, as outlined in the 2010 Equality act. They are age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy, or maternity. Unfair treatment can come in many forms, and is not always immediately apparent, even for the person being discriminated against. 

What does discrimination in the workplace look like?

Discrimination can come in many forms and can affect all different parts of the job. Some of the most common areas where discrimination occurs include pay, redundancy, promotion, training, and recruitment. 

If you feel that you have been treated unreasonably or unlawfully in any of these scenarios, your employer may have discriminated against you. For example, if you are the only Black Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) member of staff in your office, and you keep being rejected for promotions even when you have the most experience, this may be because of racial discrimination. 

Facing this kind of discrimination can be very traumatic and isolating for an employee, as it can be easy to dismiss as coincidence or as the result of other factors. Understandably, a person might justify and explain their unfair treatment before realising that it is discrimination based on a particular characteristic of theirs. 

As well as being discriminated against by an individual such a boss or manager, discrimination also occurs as the direct result of an unfair rule or policy. For example, suppose the company you work for demands all employees pass a fitness test, even when physical fitness has nothing to do with the job. In that case, some disabled people who have limited mobility will be unfairly excluded. This is known as indirect discrimination. 

Workplace discrimination and the law 

It is important to remember that all forms of workplace discrimination, including those examples given above, are against the law. Under the 2010 Equality act, discrimination at all employment stages is illegal; this includes during recruitment, employment, and dismissal. This means that if you feel you have been unfavourably treated at any stage of your job, you are protected by this law. 

If you feel you have been discriminated against, there are things you can do. Firstly, if you feel comfortable and safe to do so, you can raise it directly with the person. Remember you are protected by the law and by HR so you shouldn’t worry about losing your job by speaking out. While choosing to speak directly to the person can be extremely daunting, it may mean that you can resolve the issue without taking further legal action. 

Alternatively, if you wish you can take the case straight to court and make a claim against the person or the company. There are organisations who can assist you with this legal process. For help and advice, visit the government website.

Why does workplace discrimination occur?

Sometimes discrimination at work is the direct result of somebody’s prejudices and beliefs regarding a group of people. Often stereotypes about a protected characteristic lead to incorrect and unfair assumptions being taken as the truth. For example, the stereotype that women are bad drivers might mean that somebody advertises for a driving job and asks for male drivers only. 

Other times, discrimination comes from our unconscious biases. This means that somebody can be discriminating against a group of people without realising they are doing it because they are acting on a set of biases they have towards a particular group. We often have unconscious biases towards people who look like us and are similar to us somehow, meaning that we can unconsciously unfairly treat those who are different to us. 

For information, visit our page tackling unconscious biases.