Website of the UK government

Please note that this website has a UK government accesskeys system.

Public services all in one place

Main menu

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Discrimination in the workplace

Discrimination means treating some people differently from others. It isn't always unlawful - after all, people are paid different wages depending on their status and skills. However, there are certain reasons that your employer can't discriminate against you for.

What is discrimination?

Equal opportunities laws aim to create a 'level playing field' so that people are employed, paid, trained and promoted only because of their skills, abilities and how they do their job.

Discrimination happens when an employer treats one employee less favourably than others. It could mean a female employee being paid less than a male colleague for doing the same job, or a minority ethnic employee being refused the training opportunities offered to white colleagues.

You can’t be discriminated against because of your:

  • gender
  • marriage or civil partnership
  • gender reassignment
  • pregnancy and maternity leave
  • sexual orientation
  • disability
  • race
  • colour
  • ethnic background
  • nationality
  • religion or belief
  • age

Your employer also can’t dismiss you or treat you less favourably than other workers because you:

  • work part time
  • are on a fixed-term contract

Types of discrimination

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination happens when an employer treats an employee less favourably than someone else because of one of the above reasons. For example, it would be direct discrimination if a driving job was only open to male applicants.

There are limited circumstances in which an employer might be able to make a case for a genuine occupational requirement for the job. For example, a Roman Catholic school may be able to restrict applications for a scripture teacher to baptised Catholics only.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination is when a working condition or rule disadvantages one group of people more than another. For example, saying that applicants for a job must be clean shaven puts members of some religious groups at a disadvantage.

Indirect discrimination is unlawful, whether or not it is done on purpose. It is only allowed if it is necessary for the way the business works, and there is no other way of achieving it. For example, the condition that applicants must be clean shaven might be justified if the job involved handling food and it could be shown that having a beard or moustache was a genuine hygiene risk.


You have the right not to be harassed or made fun of at work or in a work-related setting (eg an office party). Harassment means offensive or intimidating behaviour - sexist language or racial abuse, which aims to humiliate, undermine or injure its target or has that effect. For example, allowing displays or distribution of sexually explicit material or giving someone a potentially offensive nickname.


Victimisation means treating somebody less favourably than others because they tried to make, or made, a complaint about discrimination. For example, it could be preventing you from going on training courses, taking unfair disciplinary action against you, or excluding you from company social events.

Being treated unfairly for other reasons

If you are treated unfairly but it is not for one of the reasons listed above, it may be that you are being bullied. Bullying should never be acceptable in the workplace, find out what you might be able to do about it.

Asking for your employment rights

If you are asking for your statutory employment rights and your employer treats you unfairly for this, you may be able to take legal action. Your statutory employment rights include:

  • the right to a written statement of employment particulars
  • the right to be paid the National Minimum Wage
  • protection from unlawful deductions from wages
  • the right to paid holiday
  • limits on your working hours
  • the right to join a trade union

What to do next

If you feel you are being discriminated against you should read the article that covers your problem, eg age discrimination if you feel you are being made redundant because of your age.

Was this information useful?

Thinking about what you have just read, how useful did you find the information?
Thinking about what you have just read, how useful did you find the information?
500 character limit

Why are we asking for this information?

  • we want to hear what you think about the quality and usefulness of our pages
  • your comments will help us improve our pages
  • your comments will also help with the future development of Directgov
  • telling us what you think will help make sure we give you the very best service

Additional links

Travel disruption and your rights at work

Find out what to do if snow has prevented you getting to work

Access keys