Direct discrimination

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Health Assured team

04 August 2021

Discrimination should have no place in your business. It’s unlawful and can have a serious impact on your staff and your business.

You have a legal responsibility to protect your staff from all forms of discrimination. Failure to do so can lead to costly employment tribunal claims.

Protecting staff from discrimination will increase wellbeing, productivity, and retention.

Learn what direct discrimination is, how to spot it, and what to do if it’s happening in your workplace.

What is direct discrimination?

Direct discrimination is when someone treats someone else 'unfavourably' because of a specific physical or mental characteristic - like race, gender, or class.

Most cases of discrimination are considered unlawful. If employers don’t deal with claims raised or incidents reported, legal issues can follow.

Direct discrimination can never be justified, no matter how well-intentioned. However, employers can defend a claim if they can show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent the unlawful act.

The Equality Act (2010) outlines nine 'protected characteristics,' which are unlawful to discriminate against:

  • Age.
  • Disability.
  • Gender reassignment.
  • Marriage and civil partnership.
  • Pregnancy and maternity.
  • Race.
  • Religion and belief.
  • Sex.
  • Sexual orientation.

Direct discrimination often isn’t overt. It can happen in many different ways. Here are some direct discrimination examples:

1. A pregnant employee may take more additional leave than normal, due to check-ups or even morning sickness.
It would be unlawful if you act or discipline them based on your attendance policy. This is direct discrimination against pregnancy and maternity.

2. A night shift manager doesn’t provide anymore shifts to a recently married female worker because he believes she should be at home at night.
This is a direct discrimination against sex.

3. An employee regularly makes jokes about another employee’s religious beliefs.
It is unlawful to not take reasonable action to stop this, as it’s discrimination against religion and belief.

All the above might be classed as direct discrimination in the eyes of the law.

For someone to claim direct discrimination, they need to show unfavourable treatment compared to someone without their protected characteristic.

What is the difference between direct and indirect discrimination?

Direct discrimination happens when an employee states they are being treated unfairly, in a way that disadvantages them.

For example, two employees could have the same skill set and qualifications required for a job. But the employer decides not to choose one employee because he physically expresses his religious beliefs through clothing (i.e., a turban).

Indirect discrimination happens when a practice, policy or rule discriminates against a group of people.

For example, if you require employees to work on Saturday this would discriminate against Jewish people who observe the Sabbath.

Even if the rule only impacts one employee, this would be indirect, as the rule would disadvantage other people with that protected characteristic.

How to deal with direct discrimination in the workplace

Employers are liable for acts of discrimination, harassment and victimisation carried out by their employees ‘in the course of employment’. Whether or not they know it’s even happening.

Staff might feel nervous about asking for help when facing discrimination. This can make dealing with the issues extremely difficult.

If employees don't have the confidence to raise claims, they’re likely to look for work elsewhere.

Employers should take all reasonable steps to prevent employees from acting unlawfully, and make sure that equality is a priority when creating policies.

You should let staff know the process of raising a grievance and outline zero-tolerance for all forms of discrimination at work.

If an employee does raise a complaint about discriminatory treatment, it’s your responsibility to deal with it in a timely manner. You should first speak to the employee to establish how they would like the issue to be dealt with.

You should then investigate the claims and speak to the other involved parties.


Direct discrimination can take place with or without intention. So, mediation can help you to discuss the claim and come to a fair and justified resolution.

Mediation allows both parties to talk about the incident, the impact it caused, and agreement for rebuilding working relationships.

Make it clear that your business will not allow any form of discrimination. And that you aspire to improve workplace conduct.

You could face situations where the perpetrator refuses to accept accountability, or the situation has gone to far to be solved through mediation.

In such cases, you may need to follow a grievance procedure. Here you should appoint an investigating manager to review the complaint, speak to witnesses, and collect information and evidence for the investigation. Serious cases may be cause for dismissal.

Build an empowered workforce with Health Assured

Employers should aim to protect workers from all forms of harassment, bullying, and discrimination.

The ultimate aim is to provide a safe and healthy workplace culture and environment. Without it, you could find yourself facing an increase in complaints, tribunal claims, and compensation claims.

Health Assured offers expert advice on dealing with discrimination issues in the workplace. Our confidential whistleblowing support allows your employees to confidently raise claims and feel support throughout their case.

Our helpline is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; with multi-lingual support and fully trained counsellors ready to help.

Want to find out more? Book a free consultation with one of our wellbeing consultants. For help on promoting health and wellbeing at work, call 0844 891 0352.

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