Types of Discrimination

By Andrew Willis
25 Aug 2021

At first glance, it seems quite simple. There are nine protected characteristics—so there must be nine types of discrimination, right?
Well, yes and no.

It is against the law to discriminate against someone because of one of these characteristics. Each one is a type of discrimination that can, and does, occur. However, there are other ways to categorise discrimination. These are terms you have likely heard but may not have paid too much attention to. Terms such as:

  1. Direct discrimination.
  2. Indirect discrimination.
  3. Positive discrimination.
  4. Discrimination by association.
  5. Discrimination by perception.

Need help with discrimination at work? Speak to our team on 01455 858 132, or keep reading to explore the different forms of discrimination, and show you how to recognise them.

What are the different types of discrimination?

Discrimination can occur in many different ways. It’s important to know which one you’re dealing with. You need to take a different approach to resolve discrimination issues

Direct and indirect discrimination

One of the main ways we can categorise discrimination is by whether it was direct or indirect.

“Direct” discrimination is what we tend to think of when people discriminate against others. In short, one person treats another person worse because of a protected characteristic.

“Indirect” discrimination is less well known but just as important. It’s often the indirect form that catches employers out. This is when a policy or practice that applies to everyone in the workplace disadvantages a particular group.

How does this work in practice?

Let’s look at a case of disability discrimination as an example:

  1. An employer posts a job ad that states all applicants must have a driving license. This puts certain disabled people at a disadvantage as they may not have a driving license because of their disability. This is indirect discrimination.
  2. There could be some cases where this action is justified, however. For example. If the job ad is for a taxi driver, then the individual will need a driving license as part of that role.

Positive discrimination

This term often raises the question: “Can discrimination ever be positive?”

Short answer: yes. That doesn’t mean it’s right, however.

Positive discrimination is the direct opposite to regular discrimination. It’s when you treat one person more favourably than another because of a protected characteristic. This is allowed if it means making reasonable adjustments for disability. Other than that, it is illegal.

You can take steps to support those from under-represented groups and help them overcome disadvantages they face. This is known as positive action.

The line that separates the two is when an individual is hired, or promoted, or treated more favourably because of their characteristic.

Discrimination by association

This type of discrimination is, in a sense, indirect. Despite this, it is classed as direct discrimination. Here’s why:

Associative discrimination is when an individual is treated less favourably because of their association with a person with a protected characteristic or a protected group. This could be a friend, spouse, partner, or parent.

For example, an individual set for promotion mentions in a discussion with his manager that he attended a gay pride event over the weekend. Despite not being LGBTQ+ himself, his manager begins to treat him differently and ultimately promotes someone else in his place.

Discrimination by perception

This is another form of direct discrimination. This is when an individual is treated less favourably because of a protected characteristic they are perceived as having.

For example, a manager may refuse to hire someone because they assume they are black due to the sound of their name.

Marriage and civil partnership are not covered by the law on discrimination by association or perception.

Expert support

If you are dealing a with a discrimination situation right now, our HR advice team can help. Speak to one of our expert HR professionals today 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.