Workplace discrimination - know your rights

We would all like to think that our place of work promotes equal opportunities and a level playing field for all employees but discrimination still occurs. If you think you have been treated unfairly, here's what you need to know about discrimination in the workplace.

workplace discrimination

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What is discrimination?
Simply put, discrimination is when an employer treats one employee less favourably than another based on their race or lifestyle and not on their workplace skills.

It is against equal opportunities law for an employer to pay a member of staff less than another doing the same job, or refuse training or promotion opportunities based on gender, sexual orientation, disability, race, ethnic background, pregnancy, religious beliefs or age.

The same is true if you are a part-time employee or are on a fixed-term temporary contract.

There are a number of ways in which discrimination may become apparent. Direct discrimination, for example, occurs when an employer dictates that a job which could be successfully completed by a woman, is only open to male applicants. Indirect discrimination, on the other hand, happens when working conditions or rules place one group of people at a disadvantage, for instance, the employer stipulates that all staff must be clean-shaven, potentially causing problems for people of certain religions.

Employees also have the right to work without facing offensive, intimidating or humiliating behaviour from fellow workers (harassment), or have to cope with unfair disciplinary action or exclusion from training courses and social events because of a complaint made (victimisation).

Raising the issue
If you feel that you are being discriminated against by a fellow employee or manager, your immediate boss should be your first port of call.

It is important to be very clear about the problems that have arisen and, if necessary, provide written examples of the discriminatory behaviour you have been subjected to. Most companies have their own equal opportunities policy and you are well within your rights to ask to see a copy.

If you immediate boss is at the root of the discrimination, speak to their superior or to the human resources department (or your trade union official if you have one) but bear in mind that it usually best to try to solve the problem informally and within the company before seeking legal advice.

Making a formal complaint
Where an informal complaint has fallen on deaf ears or the situation has remained unresolved, a formal complaint should be made. The complaints procedure will vary from company to company but details of how to complain should be available either within your contract, the company handbook or via human resources. Failing that, your employer must supply you with the name of the person to whom you should make your complaint.

It is likely that you will need to write a formal letter detailing your grievance (always keep a copy) and this is often followed by a meeting with your employer to discuss the issue. Once your employer has made a decision about what action to take, they should notify you in writing. You have the right to appeal that decision if the outcome is unsatisfactory.

If you are unsure about how to resolve your complaint, free, confidential advice is available from Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service). The Citizens Advice Bureau may also be able to help.

Taking legal action
It should be your last resort but if you feel your complaint has not been taken seriously, you have been victimised as a result of making the complaint or believe you have been wrongfully dismissed, you may have a legal case against your employer.

Where a dispute cannot be resolved via the company's complaints procedures, you may decide to take your case to an Employment Tribunal, where a qualified Employment Judge is joined by two non-legal members who have experience of employment issues. According to the Directgov website, there is no charge for making a claim, unless you are paying for legal representation, but you may be ordered to pay costs if either you or your representative is deemed to have behaved "unreasonably" during the case.

In most cases, claims must be made within three months of the date on which you were either unlawfully dismissed or when the incident occurred.

For more information about discrimination in the workplace and how to complain, visit