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Types of discrimination in the workplace

Discrimination can be defined as treating a particular person in a different way than others are treated, in effect, picking them out for special treatment, treating them more harshly than you would do others in the same position. It can be based on a person’s age, disability, pregnancy or maternity leave, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation or their gender identity.

There are four main types of discrimination applicable to the workplace:

  1. Direct discrimination

This is basically treating a particular person or class of people less favourably than others. This could be in the selection process for a new job for instance, rejecting people who have disabilities without first considering whether adjustments could be made to meet their needs. The direct discrimination could be on any of the grounds already identified i.e. due to sexual orientation, religion or belief.

  1. Indirect discrimination

This is slightly different in that it applies to a provision, criterion or practice which will mean a disadvantage to people due to one of the grounds. It could be that some of the workforce who are members of an ethnic minority are given some tasks but not others, while candidates for a job may be asked to take a test in a particular language even if that language was not necessary for the job.

  1. Harassment

Harassment involves unwanted conduct that either violates a person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile or humiliating environment, again due to a particular characteristic of a person or people. Harassment could involve making false rumours about a work colleague or making jokes about a particular group of people.

  1. Victimisation

Treating people less favourably because of something they may have done or in connection with the legislation. So, this could cover making things difficult for someone who has complained about their treatment or about the treatment of some of their work colleagues.

Work responsibilities

It is against the law to treat somebody less favourably than others due to a personal characteristic. It does not have to be deliberate conduct and can still be done unknowingly with working conditions or rules which disadvantage one group of people rather than another.

Unlike with other claims there is no minimum service that an employee has to work before bringing a claim for discrimination and it can be made whether or not the claimant is an employee of the company. Therefore, someone who feels they have not been selected for a job because of discrimination, can bring a claim against that company due to its selection procedure.

An employer may lawfully discriminate in some circumstances, notably selecting people for a job when being a member of a particular race, gender or religious group is a genuine occupational qualification for the job. Guidance for employers comes in the form of legislation, notably the Equality Act 2010 which brings together some of the different equality laws, with the aim of making equality law simpler and easier to understand.


Should you wish to lodge a claim at the employment tribunal for one of the claims listed above, there is a strict time limit of three months less day from the last act of discrimination.