How to Handle Discrimination in the Workplace
Discrimination is wrong, full stop. We all deserve to be treated fairly. To (nearly) quote the Bible, ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’.
Not least at work. Discrimination in the workplace can have a devastating impact on your career, confidence, future earnings and mental health. It can be very hard to move on; doing lasting damage that bleeds into all areas of your life.
Whether it’s being overlooked for a promotion because you’re a woman, or black, or older, or gay—or whether it’s facing up each day to a colleague’s sleazy innuendo, it’s wrong and it’s illegal. The Equality Act 2010 is at heart about fairness and is there to protect you.
What counts as discrimination at work?
It’s when you’re treated unfairly or differently because of who you are, which the Equality Act defines in terms of nine ‘protected characteristics’. These are:
- Gender reassignment
- Being married or in a civil partnership
- Being pregnant or on maternity leave
- A disability
- Race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
- Religion or belief
- Sexual orientation
You’re also protected if you’ve complained before about discrimination or supported someone else’s complaint.
The four ways in which you can suffer discrimination
1. Direct discrimination—you’re treated differently because of a protected characteristic.
An example could be not getting the same training opportunities as others because you’re older, or not getting a promotion because you’re a woman.
2. Indirect discrimination—where there are arrangements in place that apply to everyone but are unfair to you because you have a protected characteristic.
Say your charity has a policy of everyone working 9-5, but you have a disability that means you need to travel outside of the rush hour.
3. Harassment—unwanted behaviour linked to a protected characteristic that violates your dignity or creates an offensive environment.
This could be a range of behaviours from lewd comments based on your gender or insults about your religion.
4. Victimisation—where you’re treated unfairly because you’ve complained about discrimination or harassment.
Like no longer being invited to some work events because you previously called out a colleague’s racist language.
Act first, think later? Or think first, act later?
It may sound like a contradiction, but both are right. You must always speak up—but if that doesn’t work, then you need to do your research and get informed. Then you can choose how to act in a way that keeps your options open and puts you at the centre.
But first, you must speak up and call it out for what it is. While you may think the person being discriminatory should know it—the truth is there are degrees here and some people will not realise they’re being offensive, or not expect to be pulled up on it. Challenging them and explaining (if necessary) why it’s discrimination, could be enough to stop it.
However, it can be really hard to do that in the heat of the moment. Even if you have that kind of confidence, it’s difficult to do it well when you’re angry or upset. And many of us can only think of what we should have said, hours later—or when we’re re-living it at three in the morning and can’t sleep! So, don’t beat yourself up about it, there’s no harm in planning a conversation the next day if that’s easier for you. Just don’t let it get left for too long.
Don't miss another post, sign up to our weekly newsletter
But what if it continues or gets worse?
It can be helpful, before you go any further, to speak to someone you trust outside of work.
It can separate the emotion from the facts. Try not to just vent at them but to explain exactly what’s happened in purely factual terms. You need to put aside any personal feelings you have about the person who’s been discriminatory. Stick to what they’ve said or done.
We all have to work with people we don’t like at times or who we know to have, say, sexist attitudes in life—but if you’re going to take this any further you need to be sure that what’s been said or done to you in the workplace (or at a work event) is actual discrimination.
Keep a note of everything
From now on, make a record of everything that’s said, done or sent to you.
Keep a diary with a note of the day, time and wording of any discriminatory comments or behaviour. Who else was there? Keep all relevant emails, photos or gifts.
All of this could be really important and stop it becoming a ‘he said/she said’ type of dispute. You also need evidence if you do decide to pursue a claim of any kind.
Get informed. Read the legislation and get advice from the expert services.
The Equality Act itself is long and detailed, but GOV.UK, Citizen’s Advice and ACAS have clear explanations and guidance on possible next steps. If you belong to a union then you should speak to them.
You should also call the Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS) helpline which has replaced the one previously provided by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Broadly, all these key services will advise you of the three possible actions you can take:
- Complain directly to the person or organisation
- Use someone else to help you sort it out (called ‘mediation’ or ‘alternative dispute resolution’)
- Make a claim in a court or tribunal
Their overwhelming advice is that it’s best to try and sort it out informally with your employer first. And whether you make an informal complaint or go all the way to a tribunal, you need evidence—so, it’s really, really important to keep a record of everything.
You also need to bear in mind timings. Generally, you can only start the process of making a discrimination claim within three months less one day from the last act of discrimination. You’d then contact ACAS under their early conciliation scheme.
Don’t let discrimination frame your career
Nobody should put up with discrimination. You always need to speak up and call it out. However, at every stage, it’s important to give yourself options and not get boxed into a corner or find yourself heading along a route if you don’t have sufficient evidence.
Whether it’s about getting an inappropriate colleague to wise up and learn how to behave in the workplace, or whether it’s a systemic form of discrimination, check in with yourself often—and keep your own best interests at heart.