A Plain English Guide To British Employment Law


What is discrimination?

Equal opportunities law aim to create a ‘level playing field’ so that people are employed, paid, trained and promoted only because of their skills, abilities and how they do their job.

Discrimination happens when an employer treats one employee less favourably than others. It could mean a female employee being paid less than a male colleague for doing the same job, or a minority ethnic employee being refused the training opportunities offered to white colleagues.

You can’t be discriminated against because of your:

  • gender
  • marriage or civil partnership
  • gender reassignment
  • pregnancy and maternity leave
  • sexual orientation
  • disability
  • race
  • colour
  • ethnic background
  • nationality
  • religion or belief
  • age

Your employer also can’t dismiss you or treat you less favourably than other workers because you:

  • work part time
  • are on a fixed-term contract

Types of discrimination for purposes of employment law

Direct discrimination and employment law

Direct discrimination happens when an employer treats an employee less favourably than someone else because of one of the above reasons. For example, it would be direct discrimination if a driving job was only open to male applicants.

There are limited circumstances in which an employer might be able to make a case for a genuine occupational requirement for the job. For example, a Roman Catholic school may be able to restrict applications for a scripture teacher to baptised Catholics only.

Indirect discrimination and employment law

Indirect discrimination is when a working condition or rule disadvantages one group of people more than another. For example, saying that applicants for a job must be clean shaven puts members of some religious groups at a disadvantage.

Indirect discrimination is unlawful, whether or not it is done on purpose. It is only allowed if it is necessary for the way the business works, and there is no other way of achieving it. For example, the condition that applicants must be clean shaven might be justified if the job involved handling food and it could be shown that having a beard or moustache was a genuine hygiene risk.

Harassment and employment law

You have the right not to be harassed or made fun of at work or in a work-related setting (eg an office party). Harassment means offensive or intimidating behaviour – sexist language or racial abuse, which aims to humiliate, undermine or injure its target or has that effect. For example, allowing displays or distribution of sexually explicit material or giving someone a potentially offensive nickname.

Victimisation and employment law

Victimisation means treating somebody less favourably than others because they tried to make, or made, a complaint about discrimination. For example, it could be preventing you from going on training courses, taking unfair disciplinary action against you, or excluding you from company social events.

Being treated unfairly for other reasons

If you are treated unfairly but it is not for one of the reasons listed above, it may be that you are being bullied. Bullying should never be acceptable in the workplace, find out what you might be able to do about it.

Asking for your employment law rights

If you are asking for your employment law rights and your employer treats you unfairly for this, you may be able to take legal action. Your statutory employment rights include:

  • the right to a written statement of employment particulars
  • the right to be paid the National Minimum Wage
  • protection from unlawful deductions from wages
  • the right to paid holiday
  • limits on your working hours
  • the right to join a trade union