What Is Discrimination?

Discrimination means treating a person unfairly because of who they are or because they possess certain characteristics. If you have been treated differently from other people only because of who you are or because you possess certain characteristics, you may have been discriminated against.

The Equality Act 2010 highlights 9 protected characteristics:

  1. Age
  2. Gender
  3. Race
  4. Disability
  5. Religion
  6. Pregnancy and maternity
  7. Sexual orientation
  8. Gender reassignment
  9. Marriage and civil partnership

Discrimination that occurs because of one or more of the above characteristics is unlawful under the Equality Act. Considering every person has at least some of these characteristics such as age, race or gender, the Act protects every person from being discriminated against.

If you are treated unfavourably because someone thinks you belong to a particular group of people with protected characteristics, this is also unlawful discrimination.

Types of Discrimination

Discrimination can occur in the following forms:

Direct Discrimination

Under similar circumstances, when a person with a protected characteristic is treated less favourably than others, it is direct discrimination. For example – you have the qualifications and experience necessary for the job but your application is turned down because you are ‘too young’ or ‘too old’.

Indirect Discrimination

If there is a rule or policy in the workplace that puts you at a disadvantage as compared to others, it may be considered indirect discrimination. For example – an organisation includes a clause that forces all employees to work on Sunday. This puts Christians at a particular disadvantage as it is common knowledge that Sunday is a day of worship for Christians.

You have a right to challenge the clause if it affects you directly.

Discrimination by Association

If you are treated unfairly because someone you know or are associated with has a protected characteristic, this may be construed as discrimination by association. For example – you are refused service in a restaurant because you are with someone who belongs to a particular race.

Discrimination by Perception

Receiving unfair treatment because someone thinks you belong to a group with protected characteristics, you may be experiencing discrimination by perception. For example – you are heterosexual but an estate agency refuses to lease out a flat to you because they assume you are gay due to their misconceptions about how gay people look, dress or behave.


Harassment comprises of unwanted behaviour that makes another person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. Unwanted behaviour could include physical gestures, abuse, jokes, spoken or written words or offensive emails and expressions. For example – male gym members passing sexual comments or telling unwelcome jokes within earshot of a female gym member could constitute harassment.


When a person is treated badly or subjected to detriment because they complained about discrimination or supported another victim of discrimination, this may be considered victimisation. For example – you are denied training or advancement avenues at work because you filed a sexual harassment complaint against your boss.

Understanding When And Where You Are Protected From Discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 specifies several situations where you are protected from discrimination. Some of these situations and settings include but are not limited to the following:

  • As an employee in any kind of workplace including offices, factories or construction sites amongst others
  • As a student or staff in schools, colleges and other educational institutions
  • When looking for a place or property to rent or buy a property from estate agents or housing associations
  • As a client of a business or organisation that provides services or goods such as banks, shops and utility companies
  • When using transport services such as buses, taxis or trains
  • As a patient or resident at any healthcare setting including hospitals, private clinics and nursing homes
  • When interacting with public bodies such as local authorities and government departments

Special Clauses In The Equality Act 2010 Regarding Disability Discrimination

Under the Act, it is against the law to discriminate against disabled individuals or put them at an unfair disadvantage in educational settings, at work, when renting or buying property or when providing goods, services and other facilities. The only time when disability discrimination is considered legal is if it is possible to justify the action on health and safety grounds or because of unavoidable business reasons.

In the workplace, employers must make reasonable adjustments to the workplace so that disabled workers have access to the all the facilities and benefits as workers who do not have any disability.

Special Clauses In The Equality Act 2010 Regarding Discrimination In The Workplace

The Equality law protects you from being discriminated against at work during every phase of employment, including:

  • Recruitment
  • Training
  • Employment terms and conditions
  • Salary and benefits
    Promotion, transfer and other advancement opportunities
  • Redundancy
  • Dismissal

Understanding When It May Not Be Considered Discrimination

In some instances, it may not be considered unlawful discrimination if someone treats you unfairly on the basis of any of the protected characteristics, provided that they have good enough reason for this unfair treatment and are able to justify the discrimination.

These few examples demonstrate when discrimination may not be considered unlawful:

A construction company requires all applicants for a high-rise construction job to take a series of physical tests. While this might put older applicants at a disadvantage and could be considered as indirect age discrimination, the company is justified as an older worker may not be able to meet the physical rigors of the job.

A shelter for women posts an advertisement for female counsellors only. In this case the employers could escape any potential sex discrimination complaint by arguing that all of their clients are women who have suffered domestic violence by their male partners and they would be reluctant to speak to other men about their experience.

A Roman Catholic school is justified in restricting applications for a job as a scripture teacher to only baptised Catholics.

If an employer turns down an application because a prospective worker insists they be given time off at certain times for religious observance, it could be construed as religious discrimination. However, if the time off coincides with the employer’s business time and all workers are required to be on the job to ensure customer’s orders are met, then the employer may be justified in taking this action by citing the ‘occupational requirements’ clause.