Direct Discrimination in the Workplace

By Andrew Willis
23 Feb 2022

Did you know that direct discrimination can occur as early as the interview stage in employment? Whether intentional or not, discriminating against employees or candidates can lead to tribunal claims, damaging reputation, and demotivating staff.

Preventing less favourable treatment identified as direct discrimination by the Equality Act 2010 will positively impact your workforce. Employees benefit from an inclusive and supportive work environment, which boosts motivation and increases retention.

Start with a solid equality & diversity policy and empower your staff to apply it in all work related aspects. Call our experienced HR advisors for tailored support in either preventing or dealing with discrimination, on 01455 858 132.

Here, we will discuss direct discrimination meaning, the difference between direct and indirect discrimination, and examples to help you identify it early on.

What is direct discrimination?

Direct discrimination is when a person receives less favourable treatment due to one or more protected characteristics.

UK law protects people from discrimination through the Equality Act 2010. This piece of legislation names the nine protected characteristics as:

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

If an individual receives unlawful treatment aimed at these traits, they can make a discrimination claim. When the judge considers the claim, they will uphold evidence that shows less favourable treatment, regardless of intention or lack of it. So, saying that the employer did not mean to discriminate will not help their case.

Employers have a duty of care towards staff’s wellbeing at work. This includes protecting them against unfair, unlawful treatment from a colleague. Don’t dismiss concerns or grievances just because, as a business leader, you apply solid workplace policies. Make sure everybody understands and follows them, refresh knowledge and awareness if needed, and empower employees to speak up.

Not every workplace conflict needs to end in a tribunal, particularly if all parties involved are looking for a solution. You can rely on our professional mediators for an impartial, balanced approach to resolve conflicts between staff members. This could spare you the hassle and costs of an escalation.

But how do you identify and tackle unlawful treatment within your teams from the start? Real-life examples help us understand better what we need to keep an eye out for.  

Direct discrimination examples

If we identify discriminating behaviours or practices, we can address them and minimise damage. However, not all unfair treatment in the workplace will amount to discrimination. When assessing the situation, you need to check if the treatment or action targets an individual or a group for their protected characteristic(s).

Direct Discrimination Example

Here is one direct discrimination example for each protected trait:

  • Age discrimination

An employer who caps pay for employees in their early 20s, because of their age, disregarding skills and performance, is discriminating against them.

  • Disability discrimination

When a line manager refuses regular breaks that a disabled person requires for health reasons, this amounts to discrimination.

  • Gender reassignment

If colleagues exclude a transgender person from work social events, they discriminate against this individual.

  • Marriage and civil partnership

Dismissing an employee because they got married to another member of staff amounts to unlawful treatment.

  • Pregnancy and maternity

If an employer makes a pregnant employee redundant because of their pregnancy, they discriminate against her.

  • Racial discrimination

Paying employees of different ethnicity less than British nationals means discriminating against them.

  • Religious discrimination

Refusing a Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist person annual leave for an important religious holiday, while allowing it for Christian holidays like Christmas, amounts to dismissing a protective trait. Here, employers should consider meeting the needs of staff from different religious backgrounds equally.

  • Sex discrimination

A transport company directly discriminates against women if they preferably hire men to drive their lorries.

  • Sexual orientation discrimination

Asking an employee to not disclose to their colleagues that they are gay amounts to direct discrimination.

Each of these situations can occur at any stage of employment.

What Is Direct Discrimination

We can see direct age discrimination examples at recruiting level, all the way to retirement age. The same applies to all other forms of discrimination, with the exception of circumstantial traits, such as marriage or pregnancy.

What is the difference between direct and indirect discrimination?

The best way to distinguish between the two types of discrimination, direct and indirect, is by how it occurs:

  • Direct discrimination at work happens when an individual or group receives less favourable treatment due to protected characteristics.
  • Indirect discrimination at work happens when a rule, policy or procedure places a person or a group at a disadvantage.

Employers might miss signs of indirect discrimination simply because new situations arise. However, you need to prioritise identifying both types of wrong treatment as soon as they occur. Then, you apply measures to deal with any situation that places staff members at a disadvantage.

Both direct and indirect discrimination in employment can bring serious damage to reputation and workforce trust. Employers need to remember that staff members might discriminate against each other, and not turn a blind eye to workplace conflicts. Failing to identify unlawful behaviours still weighs heavily on the company in the eyes of the law.

Further considerations on how direct discrimination occurs

It is worth noting that it also happens by association with a person with protected characteristics. An employee who doesn’t come from a race minority can face bad treatment due to workplace friendship with a person of colour.

A more subtle example refers to the parent of a disabled child. If their employer dismisses them because they care for a disabled child, it becomes a case of discrimination.

You also need to consider direct discrimination by perception. This refers to a situation where, for example, a staff member perceived as disabled gets targeted by less favourable treatment. Their colleagues might think this person is autistic, when in fact they just have a reserved and shy personality. If they decide to exclude this person because of perceived autism, they directly discriminate against them.

Get support from Croner

When your workforce changes, you might face situations that you never came across before. Even if your policies protect your staff from unlawful treatment, that doesn’t eliminate the risk of wrong perceptions and behaviours. Dealing with discrimination claims, whether founded or unfounded, is never a place where an employer wants to find themselves.

You do not need to manage difficult situations alone, as and when they arise. Our experienced advisors will support you to find the best HR solutions for both you and your staff.

Call us to share concerns and discuss options, on 01455 858 132.

About the Author

Andrew Willis

Andrew Willis is the senior manager of the Litigation and Employment Department and assumes additional responsibility for managing Croner’s office based telephone HR advisory teams, who specialise in employment law, HR and commercial legal advice for small & large organisations across the United Kingdom.





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