What is direct discrimination?

It's an unwelcome presence in every business

Direct discrimination refers to the action of treating a person differently (often unfavourably) due to a specific physical or mental characteristic: such as age, gender or disability.

Not only is this form of treatment morally wrong in the workplace; it presents a legal issue in the context of employment law.

Examples of direct discrimination

The Equality Act (2010) lays out a detailed guideline of nine ‘protected characteristics’ that it is unlawful to directly discriminate against:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion and belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

Examples of direct discrimination

  • Pregnancy and maternity: It would be unlawful for an employer to manage and monitor absences from work due to morning sickness and count these towards triggers for action under their attendance management protocol. This is direct discrimination against pregnancy and maternity.
  • Gender reassignment: Let’s say a male employee informs their employer that are planning major surgery in order to live the remainder of their life as a woman, because it is causing them severe psychological trauma. After the discussion, the employer attempts to relocate the employee to a non-client facing role, against the employee’s wishes. This is direct discrimination against gender reassignment.

How to deal with claims of direct discrimination

This is why organisational culture is so important. Employers must ensure that equality is the norm, and is actively promoted and expected of all staff. Any detail within policies and procedures should support a business’ “Equality Agenda”, and make absolutely clear that discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated.

Employees should be fully aware what the company’s protective duty for them entails. The employer must protect employees from discrimination and, if it does take place, then the employer will deal with this appropriately by investigating complaints and issuing sanctions where necessary.

If a grievance is raised about discriminatory treatment, the employer must first speak to the employee to establish whether they have sought to resolve their issues through informal means. Often this won’t have happened because the employee is so negatively impacted by the discrimination that they feel unable to broach the subject informally.

It is the employer’s responsibility to deal with the issue in a timely manner, be completely transparent about processes and timelines, and offer support for the employees concerned. These steps will lead to an efficient investigation which should not impact upon employee morale.

Is there an opportunity to mediate the situation?

Be aware that direct discrimination may have taken place without intention, and mediation may bring two employees into a forum by which they can discuss the incident in a safe way.

Mediation often involves talking about the impact the incident or situation has had upon them, agreeing a solution and a rebuilding of the relationship with guarantees of improved future conduct.

However, sometimes the level of direct discrimination will have gone so far that mediation will either not resolve the issue, or the perpetrator will need to be held directly to account for their behaviour. In which case, grievance procedures should clearly identify an investigating manager to review the complaint, speak to witnesses and gather evidence to form a thorough investigation.

Share this article


More on what is discrimination at work?

Person sitting at desk with a laptop

Menopause in the Workplace

With the population now living longer, it is vital that you support your employee’s health and wellbeing. For those who experience symptoms at ...

What is the Equality Act 2010?

This Act of Parliament is a piece of legislation we often refer to in our various HR and employment law guides. And with good reason, the Equality ...

two female colleagues chatting

Unfair treatment of an employee at work

What is unfair treatment? Treating someone in your staff unfairly because of who they are is discrimination. It can lead to them feeling upset, ...

What is sexual harassment?

A 2015 employment tribunal judgment awarded £3.2 million to a female banker who had suffered sexual harassment at work, and the case was not a ...

Religious discrimination in the workplace

Religious discrimination is treating a person or group differently because of their beliefs. Specifically, it is when adherents of different ...

Racial discrimination in the workplace

In todays diverse world, its disheartening to acknowledge that racial discrimination still persists in various aspects of life, including the ...

empty desk

Indirect discrimination

You might have heard of direct discrimination, which is when you treat someone _differently_ because of who they are. For example, not employing ...

Gender or sex discrimination at work

Gender discrimination and sex discrimination are exactly the same thing—and we’re going to use both terms in this article. But what is gender ...

Group of people with their hands together showing equality

Gender equality at work

In todays rapidly evolving society, the importance of gender equality in the workplace cannot be overstated. Despite considerable progress, gender ...