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Discrimination at work - what’s the unfair treatment?

This advice applies to England

If you’ve been treated unfairly at work and it’s because of who you are, you may have been discriminated against.

The law which says you mustn’t be discriminated against is called the Equality Act 2010. Discrimination which is against the Equality Act is unlawful. If you’ve experienced unlawful discrimination, you may be able to do something about it.

Read this page to find out more about what unfair treatment by an employer may be unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act.

Top tips

If you want to know if unlawful discrimination has taken place you need to check:

  • why you're being treated unfairly
  • who's treating you unfairly
  • what's the unfair treatment
  • how is the treatment unfair, or what type of discrimination it is.

What unfair treatment can be unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act?

Only certain types of behaviour by an employer can be unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act, if it’s 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.

If you’re a job applicant

If you’re a job applicant, employers mustn’t discriminate against you:

  • in the way they recruit you to the job - for example, the selection and application process and interviews
  • in the terms by which they offer you a job - for example, pay, working hours, pensions and other benefits
  • by not offering you a job.

Example

You’re 19 weeks pregnant. A couple of weeks ago you applied for a job at a big department store. After a successful interview you received a job offer but when you mentioned you were pregnant, the offer was immediately withdrawn. If this is because of your pregnancy, it's unlawful pregnancy discrimination.

Example

You want to apply for a job but the employer says you have to fill in your application form online. This is difficult for you as you have learning difficulties and would prefer another more accessible format. You ask the employer if you can submit a paper application but they refuse. This could be unlawful disability discrimination.

If you’re an employee or a worker

If you’re an employee or a worker, employers mustn’t discriminate against you:

  • in your terms and conditions of employment - for example, pay, working hours, pensions and other benefits
  • in the way they offer you opportunities for promotion, training and job perks
  • by dismissing you, this includes when your fixed-term contract comes to an end and constructive dismissals  
  • by putting you at any other disadvantage.

Example

You have a mental health condition and your employer is threatening to dismiss you because of your sickness-related absence. This is unlawful disability discrimination.

Example

You’ve just returned from maternity leave. Your employer has passed some of your responsibilities to a colleague and you’ve now been told your hours will be reduced. This is likely to be pregnancy and maternity discrimination. Your employer is discriminating against you by changing your working conditions because you were on maternity leave.

If you’re an agency worker

If you’re an agency worker, both the agency and the employer you do work for or end user mustn’t discriminate against you under the Equality Act.

Other types of disadvantage

Bullying

If an employer behaves in a way which causes you distress, or offends or intimidates you, this could also be unlawful behaviour under the Equality Act. This is called harassment.

Example

You’re being bullied at work by several of your colleagues because of your sexual orientation. They make hurtful comments about your sexuality and offensive gestures. You’ve told your manager, but he’s dismissed it as banter and has done nothing about it. Since reporting the harassment, the bullying has got worse and you’re now off sick from work because of stress.

This is harassment because of your sexual orientation. It’s unlawful and you can take action against your employer under the Equality Act.

If you’re punished because you complain about discrimination

If you’re punished, or treated badly because you complain about discrimination, this is called victimisation. Victimisation is also unlawful under the Equality Act.

Example

One of your colleagues is being harassed at work by the manager because of her disability. After helping your colleague make a discrimination complaint against the manager he’s now started bullying you as well. This is victimisation and is unlawful under the Equality Act.

Where did the unfair treatment happen?

Employers are responsible for discrimination which happens at work but also in other work-related situations - for example, business trips and social events like an office Christmas party or an office away day.

Example

Your employer never invites your partner to work related social events because she’s transgender. Other colleagues are encouraged to bring their partners and spouses along. This is unlawful discrimination against you because of your partner’s gender reassignment and you can take action against your employer.

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 at

Acas

Acas works with both employers and employees to solve workplace problems.

You can phone the Acas helpline on: 0300 123 1100 and speak to an adviser about your employment problems. The helpline is open 8am-8pm Monday to Friday and 9am-1pm on Saturdays.

You can find useful information about how to sort out work-place problems on the Acas website at

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