Types of Workplace Discrimination

Workplace discrimination laws & rights every employee in UK should know. Equality Act 2010 lists several different types of discrimination under the heading “Prohibited Conduct”. Know your rights & laws in the UK.
  • Author: Siva
  • Last updated: October 20, 2022
  • 5 Minutes
types of workplace discrimination and its legal obligations in the UK explained by Papershift

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Discrimination in the workplace can be disastrous for morale and may lead to financial penalties and a bad reputation.

But what exactly is discrimination and what are the types of discrimination that workers may encounter?

Read on to find out more.

What is discrimination in the workplace?

According to UK law, it is illegal for an employer to treat a person unequally based on his or her race, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, or disability. 

Discrimination in the workplace covers any work-related issues, and it is important for employers to take care that the company handbook, policies, and practices are uniform, regardless of employee race, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, or disability. Even a policy that applies to all employees, regardless of these factors may be illegal if it creates a negative impact on the employees. For example, if an employer has a hair style policy that applies to all employees, it may be unlawful if the policy impacts on a certain race due to a predisposition of natural hair types.

What UK law covers discrimination?

Protected by law
The Equality Act 2010 legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society.

It replaced previous anti-discrimination laws with a single Act, making the law easier to understand and strengthening protection in some situations. It sets out the different ways in which it’s unlawful to treat someone.

What are the types of discrimination in the workplace?

The Equality Act 2010 lists several different types of discrimination under the heading “Prohibited Conduct”. There are four “main” types of prohibited conduct which include: 

  1. Direct Discrimination
  2. Indirect Discrimination
  3. Harassment
  4. Victimisation

Direct Discrimination

Direct Discrimination is arguably the most straight forward form of discrimination and is what most people would think of as discrimination.

Direct Discrimination occurs when an employer or individual treats a person less favourably than they treat or would treat others because of one or more of the protected characteristics.

The types of protected characteristics are:

  1. Age
  2. Disability
  3. Gender reassignment
  4. Marriage and civil partnership
  5. Pregnancy and maternity
  6. Race
  7. Religion or belief
  8. Sex and sexual orientation

Indirect Discrimination

Indirect discrimination results from practices and policies that do not directly discriminate against a particular group of people, but which (indirectly) have the effect of disadvantaging them.

Indirect discrimination arises where a practice or policy:

  • Puts a worker with a protected characteristic at a disadvantage when compared with people who do not share their protected characteristic.

Indirect discrimination can be tricky to define so let’s look at an example for clarification:

An employer has a policy requiring employees to attend work regularly. This policy applies to all employees regardless of circumstance. This means that employees who have long periods of sickness absence might eventually be dismissed. A specific worker has Crohn’s disease, a disability which often requires them to have time off work. This is possible indirect discrimination as the employee is at greater risk of dismissal than his colleagues because he must take time off work due to a disability. 


The first point to make about workplace harassment is that its definition in employment law is different from most people’s idea of what harassment is. As with the other types of discrimination listed above, harassment needs to relate to a protected characteristic.

A person is said to harass another if they:

“Engage in unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic which has the purpose or effect of either: violating an individual’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the individual”.

The protected characteristics that apply in harassment cases are age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. The Act is worded so that even if a person does not intend their conduct to be harassment it can still be considered so if it has the effect of creating a humiliating environment for an individual.


Victimisation occurs when someone suffers from poor treatment because:

  • They have done a protected act or,
  • They are believed to have done a protected act or may do in the future.

Examples of protected acts are:

  • Making a complaint about discriminatory treatment to your employer
  • Giving evidence in a Tribunal
  • Pursuing a discrimination claim.

What could I be discriminated for?

There are many different characteristics and traits that might lead to discrimination. These include: 

  1. Ageism. This is discrimination that is made based on an employee’s age. It’s important to note that ageism can apply to employees of all ages, not just those who are older. 
  2. Ableism. This type of discrimination happens when an employer treats an employee or applicant differently because they have a disability or a history of being disabled. Disability law in the UK protects the rights of an individual with a disability by allowing them to be accommodated fairly by employers upon their job application and throughout their employment.
  3. Racism. Despite being illegal, racial discrimination (that is discrimination based on an employee’s skin colour or ethnicity) continues to be persistent in the workplace. 
  4. Religious discrimination. Discriminating against an employee because of their religious beliefs is illegal and is also protected by law. 
  5. Gender discrimination. Gender discrimination is also illegal but can have a wide range of effects on staff. It’s important to note that gender discrimination is not exclusive to women and men can be discriminated against too.
  6. Sexual orientation discrimination. Whether an employee identifies themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or heterosexual, they are still entitled to their rights as an individual and these rights should be protected in the workplace by company policies that are in line with the law. 

What places am I protected from discrimination?

As an employee, you are protected against discrimination in the following places:

  • The workplace
  • An association, society, or club
  • Transport
  • Public services
  • Public bodies

What penalties can an employee face if found guilty of discrimination?

A dismissal on discriminatory grounds is not subject to any limit on compensation and there is no requirement for any period of continuous service. The award is made up of:

  • A compensatory award – uncapped for past and future financial losses and judged in the light of the employee’s future job prospects.
  • An injury to feelings award. The amount of this award will depend on the seriousness of the case.

In conclusion

Discrimination in the workplace can be disastrous for morale and may lead to legal proceedings against a business. That’s why it is vital for employers and employees to understand the types of discrimination they may encounter.

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Written by Siva

I write & describe the value & benefits delivered by Paperhift's rota planning, staff time tracking, and employee payroll management software. Especially useful for Shift Planners, Rota Managers, Team Admins, and HR Teams :-)