Associative Discrimination at Work

By Deborah Manktelow
09 Oct 2020

To protect employees, the government introduced the Equality Act 2010. This act outlined nine protected characteristics that employers can’t discriminate against.

This means you cannot treat an employee with one of these characteristics less favourably or differently than an employee without one or with a different one.

You can still discriminate against someone, even if they’re not the one with the protected characteristic. We call this associative discrimination.

It is important to protect yourself against this, as claims are costly to your business's finances and reputation.

Let’s explore what it is and some examples of discrimination by association.

What is discrimination?

To define associative discrimination, we need to understand how employment law defines discrimination.

It all has to do with the nine protected characteristics. It is unlawful to discriminate against and treat employees differently because of them. The nine protected characteristics are:

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

Protection from discrimination is a ‘day-one’ employee right. This means that there is no required length of service required in order for an employee to file a tribunal claim against the employer. There are multiple ways that discrimination can occur. Discrimination against the characteristics can come in one of the following forms.

  • Direct discrimination: when you treat an employee differently because of a protected characteristic.
  • Indirect discrimination: a policy that applies the same way for everybody but disadvantages a group of people who share a protected characteristic.
  • Harassment: unwanted and offensive behaviour directed to an individual based on someone’s protected characteristic.
  • Victimisation: treating someone unfairly because they’ve complained about discrimination or harassment.

What is associative discrimination?

This is a form of direct discrimination. It is where an employee is treated less favourably because of the characteristics of a person they are associated with.

The Coleman v Attridge Law in the European Court of Justice confirmed the associative discrimination. Here, the mother of a disabled child could claim for discrimination if her employer treated her less favourably (or harassed her) because of her child’s disability.

There are many situations it can arise in. Understanding the associative discrimination definition in its proper context is essential if you wish to avoid discrimination claims. Let’s look at some associative discrimination examples

Examples of associative discrimination

Knowing some associative discrimination cases and examples are essential. This is because being familiar with examples will help you avoid the same mistakes. It also allows you to better see how they arise, where you can add in preventative measures.

Associative sexual orientation discrimination example

During a casual conversation, an employee and their manager discuss what they did over the weekend. The employee mentions that they went to a gay pride event with their friends.

The manager knows they are not a member of the LGBTQ+ community, but treats them less favourably than their other colleagues, regardless.

Employment law would see this as an example of associative discrimination as the manager is treating them differently due to their association with the LGBTQ+ community.

While they themselves are not LGBTQ+, their friends are and the law protects against the discrimination of sexual orientation.

Associative racial discrimination example

An employee at work is due to receive a promotion at work. The employee encounters their line manager while out shopping. They introduce them to their partner, who is a person of colour.

After the chance encounter, the manager treats the employee differently. Instead of giving them the promotion, it unexpectedly goes to a different employee.

Employment law would consider this direct racial associative discrimination because their manager only treated them unfairly, by not promoting them, after meeting their partner.

Associative disability discrimination example

An employer promised a mother a promotion at work. After this, she tells her manager during a casual conversation that her daughter has a disability.

Having learnt this, the manager withdraws the promotion because the mother could not focus entirely on the new role because of perceived caring responsibilities for her daughter.

Employment law would consider this associative discrimination because of the mother’s association with a disability.

Expert support

If you need further guidance on avoiding discrimination or any other HR issue, speak to a Croner expert today on 0145 585 8132.

About the Author

Headshot of Deborah Mantkelow

Deborah Manktelow is a CIPD Qualified HR professional with over 7 years’ experience in generalist HR management working within the Construction Industry.

Working for a National provider of Insulation provided Deborah with the opportunity to strategically support Operations across the UK, supporting HR functions and the wider business.

Deborah is Croner’s Advice Manager, taking responsibility for overseeing the provision of advice to all Croner clients, bringing together our Corporate, Simplify and Association service provisions.

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