Discrimination At Work: A Guide for Employees

Suffered discrimination at work? Been bullied, harassed or treated unfairly? Find out what the law says about discrimination and whether you can make a claim against your employer.

By MyLegalAdviser - Last Updated September 2017


It's illegal for employers to discriminate against employees under certain grounds (known as “protected characteristics”). Doing so can entitle an employee to bring a discrimination claim against an employer at the employment tribunal.


What is discrimination?

Under UK law, it is illegal for employers to discrimination against employees on any of the follow grounds (known as protected characteristics):

  • age
  • gender
  • sexual orientation
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • disability (unless there are no reasonable adjustments which can be made to allow the employee to do their job)
  • race
  • religion or belief

What does discrimination in the workplace look like?

Employees may be entitled to make a discrimination claim if their employer has treated them differently due to a protected characteristic when doing any of the following:

  • dismissing staff
  • training
  • recruiting (although employers can positively discriminate on the basis of a protected characteristic to select that candidate)
  • setting pay and benefits
  • considering employees for promotion and transfer opportunities
  • making employees redundant
  • setting employment terms and conditions

How can discrimination take place?

Discrimination by an employer doesn't just mean your boss treating you badly. It covers a whole range of behaviours your employer undertakes or allows. The most common ways discrimination in the workplace can occur include:

  • direct discrimination – when a person or group with a protected characteristic are treated less favourably than others;
  • indirect discrimination – when a practice, policy or rule which applies to everyone puts a group of people with a protected characteristic at a disadvantage;
  • harassment – unwanted behaviour linked to a protective characteristic which violates someone’s dignity or creates an offensive or degrading environment for them;
  • victimisation – where a person complains about discrimination or harassment and is victimised for it.

What should you do if you've suffered discrimination?

Although the procedure will vary in different circumstances, generally speaking:

  1. employee raises a complaint – depending on the severity and what they feel comfortable with, the employee can raise this informally or formally with their employer or manager;
  2. employer investigates - the employer should investigate the complaint according to the severity and type of the alleged discrimination and discuss the complaint with the affected employee;
  3. employer considers what action is required – this may mean any number of things: e.g. an informal discussion/mediation, disciplinary proceedings, lodging a grievance, reviewing to business’ policies or no action is required.
  4. employer performs that action;
  5. employer considers how to avoid any further issues;
  6. employee considers whether they are satisfied with the outcome – if not, they may consider lodging a grievance or making a claim at the employment tribunal.

What should employers be doing to avoid discrimination in the workplace?

Although each business is different, some things which employers should be doing to avoid discrimination in the workforce are:

  • putting in place and enforcing an equality policy – including setting out the consequence of breaches, e.g. by making them grounds for disciplinary proceedings;
  • training - training staff, particularly managers, on discrimination law;
  • procedure for complaints - ensure there is a procedure for complaints and that employees are aware of it;
  • keeping records – for example, the reasons why one employee was selected for redundancy over another in case they later allege discrimination;
  • taking care when dismissing staff – see our Guide to Dismissing Staff;
  • taking complaints seriously and dealing with them promptly.

If your employer isn't doing any of these things, it may help to show they aren't taking the necessary steps to stop discrimination.


Can you make a claim?

Employees who suffer discrimination should usually lodge a complaint with their employer as a first step.

Where they do not feel their complaint is dealt with properly or are unhappy with the decision, they should consider making an appeal or a claim to the employment tribunal.

Given the amount of time and costs of making a claim at a tribunal it is advisable, at the very least, to have an initial consultation with an employment lawyer to establish the strength of a claim and the likely timescale before going ahead. They'll be able to advise you on the strength of your claim, chances of a successful outcome and the steps needed to make a claim.


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