Understanding Workplace Discrimination: Your Rights and Legal Options

Discrimination in the workplace is illegal and the law protects you against it. If you suspect you’re a victim of workplace discrimination, explore your legal options.

What is discrimination in the workplace?

Workplace discrimination occurs when you’re treated unfairly by your employer due to your ‘protected characteristics’ as defined by the Equalities Act 2010.

Protected characteristics include:
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sexuality
  • Disability
  • Marriage and civil partnerships
  • Pregnancy and maternity

So, if you’ve suffered under a manager who ignores your years of experience in favour of promoting recent graduates because ‘they work longer hours for less money’, or faced callous and bullying remarks due to your ethnicity, you could be able to make a discrimination claim.

You’ll typically come across four different types of discrimination:
  • Direct discrimination is when an employer treats you unfairly because of your protected characteristics.
  • Indirect discrimination sees employers introduce unjustified arrangements or rules that unfairly impact those with a protected characteristic.
  • Harassment includes bullying and unwanted sexual advances, creating an offensive working environment or violating your dignity.
  • Victimisation is when an employee is unfairly treated because of actions the company doesn’t like, such as complaining about discriminatory behaviour.

Most workers are protected – although you’ll find some exceptions, such as volunteers, the self-employed, or certain public servants. If you’re unsure, it’s worth chatting to an employment solicitor.

What steps should you take when discriminated against at work?

  • Make a record

The very first thing you should do is record any incidents you believe are a form of discrimination. Alongside an account of what happened, make sure you note the date, time, location, and people involved, including aggressors and witnesses.
  • Talk to senior staff

In many cases, discrimination isn’t vindictive, but a result of poor management and communication. Arrange a meeting with your manager or the company’s senior staff to discuss the issue. Stay calm (we know it’s not easy in these situations). Try to resolve the problem professionally.
  • Report discrimination

If the harassment or unfair treatment continues, report it to HR – and make it official. By law, your employer must investigate all discrimination complaints. This may lead to disciplinary meeting. Any employee who feels they’ve witnessed discrimination against a colleague can file a report.
  • Mediation

Discrimination claims are fraught with emotion, for obvious reasons, so it can help to bring in a third-party to mediate discussions between you and your employer. You’re allowed to bring someone along for support – this could be a friend or relative, or your solicitor, who should limit their participation. Always attempt resolution before taking legal action.
  • Speak to an employment solicitor

Once you’ve exhausted your options but still face discrimination, it’s time to get legal advice. Make sure to give your solicitor a copy of your records, so they fully understand the case.

How do you make a discrimination claim at an employment tribunal?

If your employer fails to act over discrimination at work, it’s likely you’ll need to take the matter to court or an employment tribunal. Your solicitor will be able to advise on the exact process and documents you’ll need.

It's necessary to first inform ACAS of your intention to take the case to a tribunal. You only have three months to make your claim, so be quick.

You’ll initially be offered ‘early conciliation’. This is a type of mediation, and you’ll be expected to attend if you and your employer haven’t already tried what’s known as ‘alternative dispute resolution’.

At the end of this process, should you and your employer reach a solution, you’ll get a legally binding certificate outlining the agreement. If early conciliation fails, you’ll receive a form that lets you take your employer to a tribunal.

What outcomes can you expect from a tribunal?

Outcomes depend on the type of claim you’re making. In most cases, if the business loses the case, they must either:
  • Reinstate you in your previous job
  • Re-engagement you in a new or similar role on similar terms
  • Compensate you financially, including any money owed for work
In workplace discrimination cases, as with most other tribunal hearings, compensation is the most likely outcome.

Just before your tribunal starts (or sometimes, if the tribunal allows, after you’ve won), you may hear from a representative for your employer in an attempt to settle the case. If no settlement is possible, you can return to the tribunal to ask for a compensation award.

Figures from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy suggest around 58% of tribunal cases are settled before a hearing – with discrimination cases most likely to be withdrawn or settled either privately or through ACAS.

If you lose your claim, you’re able to appeal the decision through the Employment Appeal Tribunal within 42 days. A solicitor will also help you with your appeal.

How will employment solicitors help you?

Employment solicitors can offer advice on your current situation and how best to proceed.

It might be that your case isn’t covered by the Equalities Act 2010. Or you want to use a representative as a go-between when trying to resolve the problem with your employer. They can also negotiate an end to your contract plus any compensation due, or an amicable return to work.

Your solicitor will explain how the tribunal process and how to prepare for legal action. Making a discrimination claim is complicated and time-consuming. Legal wranglings can last weeks (and, in certain cases, years), so it’s best to have representation that helps your case succeed.

Use The Law Superstore quick quote form to find an employment solicitor who can help guide you through your workplace discrimination claim without breaking the bank.