Have you suffered discrimination at work? Here's what you need to know

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

What are the protected characteristics?

It is illegal to discriminate against an employee on any of the following grounds:

  • 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

How does this affect the workplace?

Employers should be careful not to take into account protected characteristics when, for example, they are:

  • 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

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What types of discrimination are there?

Discrimination can take place in many different ways. The most common are:

  • 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.

The procedure

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.

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What should employers do to avoid discrimination claims?

Although each business is different, some things which employers can do to protect themselves and their workforce against discrimination 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.

Do you need legal advice?

Employers with a diverse workforce should consider taking legal advice to ensure they have the proper rules and procedures in place to limit exposure to discrimination claims. If they do receive a complaint they should take it seriously and investigate promptly, which may include taking legal advice as to how to deal with the process.

Employees who suffer discrimination should generally first complain to their employer. 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 often 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.


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