Forms of religious discrimination

As the UK population becomes more diverse, employers have more to think about when it comes to preventing religious discrimination

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Tuesday, Nov 09, 2021

Workforces now include people with a broader range of religious beliefs, as well as people with no religious beliefs at all.

It’s no surprise, then, that the law now recognises many different forms of employee religious discrimination. If you aren’t aware of them all yet, or you just need a recap, here’s what you need to know.

Who is protected from religious discrimination?

Who’s protected in the workplace? The short answer is, everyone. Employees are protected by the Equality Act 2010, regardless of:

  • Their own religion, belief, or non-belief. Smaller religions and sects are included.
  • Their employer’s religion, belief, or non-belief
  • Whether they’re already employed, or applying for a job

Sometimes, an employee may only be perceived to be of a certain religion — e.g., their employer or colleague believes they ‘look Rastafarian’ — when in fact they aren’t. In such cases, the employee is still protected against discrimination committed against them.

Direct religious discrimination

Direct religious discrimination is when an employer treats someone less favourably than other employees because of their religion.

The plainest form of direct discrimination is when an employer takes an unfair action against an employee based on their religion. Typical examples include:

  • Dismissing an employee because of their religion
  • Deciding not to hire an applicant because of their religion
  • Refusing to develop or promote an employee because of their religion
  • Paying an employee less because of their religion

However, employers are also responsible for forms of direct religious discrimination committed by their employees.


Bullying an employee at work because of their religion is another form of direct discrimination, usually known as harassment. The harasser can be the employer, or the victim’s colleague.

Any behaviour that the employee finds distressing, humiliating, or offensive can be considered harassment at employment tribunal — whether it is intentional or unintentional.


Employees who are treated unfairly because of their religion have a right to complain, raise a grievance, or make a claim at an employment tribunal. Yet in many cases, this leads to further ill-treatment from their employer or colleagues. The employee might be ignored, denied opportunities, or unfairly disciplined for speaking out.

Such actions constitute victimisation, another form of direct discrimination that is illegal under the Equality Act.

Indirect religious discrimination

Indirect religious discrimination is when an employer sets rules that apply to everyone, but which unfairly disadvantage employees with certain religions or beliefs.

For example, an employer might indirectly discriminate by:

  • Requiring a dress code that excludes people who wear items of clothing as part of their faith
  • Unfairly setting work schedules that prevent employees taking time off for religious observance
  • Unfairly banning wearing certain religious items, such as the symbolic bracelet worn by Sikh men

The key word above is ‘unfairly’. It’s lawful to have rules in the workplace, even those that may unintentionally exclude certain faiths — so long as they are reasonable and justifiable.

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