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Discrimination at work - who’s treating you unfairly?

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 who mustn’t discriminate against you at work.

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.

Who mustn’t discriminate against you at work?

People who mustn’t discriminate against you at work include:

  • your employer
  • your colleagues
  • employment agencies
  • someone an employment agency arranges you to work for or end user.

Are you someone who's protected against discrimination at work?

If you're a job applicant, an agency worker or an employee within the meaning of the Act, you're someone who's protected against discrimination.

If you’re an agency worker

If you’re an agency worker, you’re protected from discrimination in the same way as all other workers. You’re an agency worker if you have a contract with an employment agency and they arrange for you to do work for another employer or end user.

Often this work will be temporary but you can also be an agency worker if you’re doing longer-term work for another employer or even if you work there permanently. The Equality Act calls the end user the principal andan agency worker a contract worker.

You can take action about unlawful discrimination against both the principal and the agency depending on who’s discriminated against you. Sometimes you may be able to take action against both of them.

Example

You’re signed up as a temp with an employment agency. You were placed with an employer but had to take time off because of pregnancy-related illness. Because of this, the employer asked the agency to find someone else to do the job which they did. This is likely to be unlawful pregnancy discrimination and you can take action under the Equality Act both against the employer and the employment agency.  

What if you’ve been discriminated against by a colleague at work?

If a colleague at work discriminates against you, you can take action against your employer provided the discrimination happened at work or in the course of employment.

Your employer is responsible for acts of discrimination by other workers which take place at:

  • work
  • business trips and work related events, like an office away-day
  • some social events if they’re organised by your employer - for example, an office Christmas party or a work-related dinner.

You can still take action against your employer even if they didn’t know about the discrimination or approve of it.

When is the employer not responsible for acts by other employees?

In some situations, if you make a discrimination claim against your employer in the employment tribunal, they may be able to rely on a special defence in the Equality Act. If your employer can show they took all reasonable steps to stop employees from discriminating against one another before you were discriminated against, they won't be responsible under the Act. Simply having an equal opportunities policy will not be sufficient to show this.

If you want to take legal action about discrimination by a colleague, it’s always best to make your claim against both your employer and your colleague. If your employer is successful in raising the reasonable steps defence, you may still be able to claim compensation against your colleague.

Example

You’re being sexually harassed by your manager. You’ve complained to the human resources department but they haven't done anything about it.

Your employer has a policy against sexual harassment. All new managers are given training about the policy and told that anybody who breaches the policy will be disciplined. However, you know there have been other incidences of sexual harassment where nothing has been done about it.

In this situation, the employer has taken steps to stop managers from harassing other colleagues at work. But because they’ve ignored several complaints about harassment they probably couldn’t say they’ve taken all reasonable steps to stop it from happening.

If your employer is a public authority

Duty to promote equality

If your employer is a public sector organisation or a public authority, like the NHS, the civil service or an education authority, they have additional duties to promote equality under the Equality Act. This is called the public sector equality duty. You may be able to use the public sector equality duty to strengthen your discrimination claim.

Human rights

Public authorities must also follow the Human Rights Act 1998. This means that if your employer is a public authority, you may also be able to use human rights arguments to strengthen your discrimination claim or make a separate claim under the Human Rights Act.

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

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