Discrimination at work

We live in the 21st century, which you think would mean we’ve progressed a little as a society. And in many ways we have, but one aspect where we’re sorely lacking is acceptance of our differences. Sadly, discrimination is still everywhere, especially in the workplace. Here’s how to deal with it in a productive and healthy way.

A group of young people are sitting around a table. They are discussing discrimination at work. This is a wide-angle image.

What is discrimination at work in the UK?

Discrimination at work is any form of unfair treatment. This could be based on your gender identity, sexuality, race, religion or age – sometimes referred to as protected characteristics – or because of a disability. It’s important to note that discrimination on disabilities is known as disability discrimination (pretty easy to remember, but we thought we should mention it).

We want to emphasise that discrimination at work is illegal in the UK based on the Equality Act 2010. So what kind of things count as discrimination? Well, at work, you should have the same rights as everybody else to:

  • apply to a job, and to be judged based solely on your qualifications
  • get the same salary as others doing a similar role
  • get the same training opportunities
  • put yourself up for promotion and have an equal shot at the job
  • not be bullied at work or harassed, by your boss or other employees
  • complain if someone treats you unfairly

If any of these bullet points haven’t been your experience in the workplace, take a moment to think. It might be a direct result of you identifying with any of the protected characteristics mentioned above. In which case, it’s discrimination.

Sometimes discrimination is obvious, for example if a woman is paid less than a man. But it doesn’t always have to be. One of the more subtle types of discrimination could be a job that’s only hiring UK citizens for no good reason a.k.a, indirect discrimination.

If you’re still not sure about what counts as discrimination, you can check the Advice Now website to help you figure it out.

What can I do if I feel discriminated against at work?

Talk to someone at work

If you feel comfortable enough, try and talk to the perpetrator. Alternatively, you can go straight to talking to someone higher up, or, if you’re a member of a trade union, get in touch with them.

Before you start telling your story, make sure you keep a written record of examples of discrimination. These will help back up your claims and ensure that everything they’ve done is on the record. One way to do this might be typing all the incidents up right after they happen. Then send them to your personal email address.

Make a formal complaint

If sorting it out informally hasn’t worked you can make a formal complaint. All workplaces should have a grievance procedure; take a look at yours to work out who to give your complaint to, and the steps you have to take. Some helpful advice is to get someone to help you write up the complaint. We’d recommend they be from your trade union or someone from the Citizens Advice Bureau if you’re in England and Wales. That way they’ll have some experience with the situation.

Go to an employment tribunal

You can also take your case to an employment tribunal. This is basically the same as a court of law, so you should defo get some advice on how to proceed. You can try talking to someone from Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), who can go through all of your options.

Will I get in trouble for making a complaint?

You may think that there’s a risk you’ll get labelled a troublemaker and things could get awkward, but the law actually protects you from this. It’s illegal to mistreat or victimise someone because they’ve made a complaint. If this happens, don’t be afraid to complain about it – on top of your initial issue. Remember, sticking up for yourself is ALWAYS the right thing to do, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. Your real friends will support you ‘til the bitter end, the other people aren’t worth your time.

Equal pay and sex discrimination at work in the UK

This type of discrimination generally applies to people who identify as women. Don’t be afraid to ask what your manager earns. If the figure is higher than your salary, then you have grounds for a valid complaint.

A majority of jobs are open to everybody, regardless of sex. But there are a few cases where employers can choose employees of a particular sex based on the scenario. It’s OK, for example, to only employ women to do bra-fittings. 

Racial discrimination at work

It’s illegal for an employer to discriminate against you because of your race, colour, nationality. Nor can they treat you differently because of the race of one of your friends, a significant other or anyone else. You have as much right to be there as the next person – never forget that.

Age discrimination at work

An employer cannot treat you differently because you’re young, unless they have a good reason. For example, if you’re under 18 then legally you can’t work certain hours or in certain jobs. The minimum wage also changes depending on your age, so someone aged 17 can be paid less than someone aged 25. If they give you all the menial tasks and talk to you like a child, however, that’s blatant discrimination which you should report ASAP.

Sexual orientation discrimination at work

Legally, everyone has to be treated the same, whether they love men, women or non-binary people. Sexuality-related bullying, i.e., calling someone a ‘fag’ or any other homophobic name, is illegal even if they aren’t actually gay. This also includes discrimination against anyone who’s undergone gender reassignment surgery, or is in the process of socially transitioning.

You also can’t refuse to work with someone solely because of their sexuality, even if it’s against your religious beliefs. But we should flag that some religious organisations may be allowed to refuse to employ someone because of their sexuality. Kind of messed up, we know.

Discrimination at work against religion or belief

This includes discrimination against established religions as well as deeply held beliefs. So, for example, you can’t discriminate against someone for being an atheist (even though that’s not considered a religion)

Unfortunately, you don’t have to be given time off for religious holidays, and your employer doesn’t have to give you specific facilities – such as a chapel or prayer room. Although, Acas encourages them to do it if they can. When it comes to clothing, you should be allowed to wear whatever lets you feel comfortable and adheres to your beliefs, as long as it doesn’t affect your work.

Discrimination and bullying at work

If you’re being treated badly at work, but don’t think you’re being discriminated against in the ways we’ve described above, you may be experiencing bullying. Whilst it’s not technically illegal, bullying is still a serious offence in the workplace. This means that there are systems in place to protect you and help you through it. For some advice, See our article on bullying at work here.

Have you suffered from discrimination at work? We would love to hear your story on our discussion boards.

Next Steps

  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Nishika Melwani

Updated on 30-Jan-2022