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Indirect discrimination at work

This advice applies to Wales

Indirect discrimination can be more difficult to spot than direct discrimination. It’s when you’re treated in the same way as other people at work, but it has a worse effect on you because of who you are - for example, because of your religion or because you’re a woman.

Indirect discrimination is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. If you've experienced unlawful discrimination at work, you may be able to do something about it.

Read this page to find out more about indirect discrimination at work.

When is it indirect discrimination?

Indirect discrimination is when an employer has a practice, policy or rule which applies to other people at work in the same way and so seems fair, but it has a worse effect or particularly disadvantages you and other people like you because of who you are.

You can challenge a workplace practice, policy or rule, if it disadvantages you because of your:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

The Equality Act calls these things protected characteristics.

In some situations, an employer can justify indirectly discriminating against you. This will be allowed where the employer has a good business reason for applying the policy, rule or practice and they've considered its impact on people who share your situation.

What’s a practice, policy or rule?

A practice, policy or rule can be written or unwritten and includes:

  • policies and procedures - for example, your employer’s sickness policy or grievance and disciplinary procedures
  • a rule, requirement or criteria - for example, for promotion, training or recruitment
  • your working conditions and contractual arrangements - for example, hours of work, including a requirement to work week-ends or evenings.

The Equality Act calls these provisions, criteria or practices.

When might it not be indirect discrimination?

Justifying discrimination

If you make a complaint about indirect discrimination, your employer may be able to justify discriminating against you. To justify discrimination, they would have to show they have a good business reason for discriminating against you. The Equality Act calls this a legitimate aim. The employer can't just say they have a good business reason for discriminating against you, they must be able to show it.

Examples of reasons employers often use to try to justify discrimination are:

  • ensuring the health and safety of its employees
  • running a profitable business
  • business efficiency and reducing costs.

But something may not be a good enough business reason if the employer could have done things in a less discriminatory way. This means the employer must show they thought about the discriminatory effects of the decision or action they took and that it was necessary to act in that way. The Equality Act says the employer must show the decision is a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim.

Your employer can’t justify discriminating against you just by saying it’s necessary to reduce costs. However, costs can be taken into account as part of the justification if the employer can show there are other good business reasons for the discriminatory treatment.

Example

You work in a children’s home.Your employer has a policy which says all its care workers have to work Sunday shifts on a rota basis. The policy applies to all staff, but it has a worse effect on you and other Christians who can't work on Sundays because of your religious beliefs. It could therefore be indirect discrimination unless your employer can justify the policy.

For example, your employer may say it's necessary to ensure the best care of the children. They would have to show that requiring all staff to work Sunday shifts is necessary and that it’s the best way of achieving their aim. Your employer could also say it’s a more cost-effective way of providing the service as long as this isn’t the only reason for discriminating against you.

Next steps

Other useful information

Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)

If you have experienced discrimination, you can get help from the EASS discrimination helpline.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

You can find useful information about discrimination on the EHRC website.

Acas

Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) provides free and impartial information and advice on all aspects of workplace relations and employment law.

To talk to an adviser about your employment problem, call the Acas helpline on 0300 123 1100.

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