A Plain English Guide To British Employment Law

Race Discrimination

It’s unlawful for an employer to discriminate against you because of your race. You are protected against racial discrimination at all stages of employment. Find out about your rights and what to do if you feel you are suffering race discrimination.

Race discrimination and employment law

The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against you on racial grounds. Race includes:

  • colour
  • nationality
  • ethnic or national origins

For employment law purposes, it doesn’t matter if the race discrimination is done on purpose or not. What counts is whether (as a result of an employer’s actions) you are treated unfavourably because of your race.

The Equality Act 2010 protects all racial groups, regardless of their race, colour, nationality, or national or ethnic origins.

The different kinds of race discrimination at work

The laws against racial discrimination at work cover every part of employment. This includes recruitment, terms and conditions, pay and benefits, status, training, promotion and transfer opportunities, right through to redundancy and dismissal.

The race discrimination employment law allows a job to be restricted to people of a particular racial or ethnic group where there is a ‘genuine occupational requirement’. An example is where a black actor is needed for a film or television programme.

There are four main kinds of race discrimination:

  • direct discrimination – deliberate discrimination (eg where a particular job is only open to people of a specific racial group)
  • indirect discrimination – working practices, provisions or criteria that disadvantage members of any group (eg introducing a dress code without good reason, which might discriminate against some ethnic groups)
  • harassment – participating in, allowing or encouraging behaviour that offends someone or creates a hostile atmosphere (eg making racist jokes at work)
  • victimisation – treating someone less favourably because they have complained or been involved in a complaint about racial discrimination (eg taking disciplinary action against someone for complaining about discrimination against themselves or another person)

Employers who don’t stop discrimination, harassment and bullying by their employees may be breaking the law.

Jobs restricted to ethnic or national groups

In rare circumstances there are some jobs that require you to be of a particular racial group. This is known as genuine occupational requirement.

What is ‘positive action’?

Positive action is where an employer provides support or encouragement to a particular racial group. It is only allowed where a specific racial group is, or has been in the previous 12 months, badly under-represented among those doing particular work, either:

  • nationally
  • locally
  • within an employer’s own workforce

The employer is allowed to provide special training to members of the racial group. They can also encourage members of the racial group to apply to do the work or fill the posts (for example, by saying that applications from them will be particularly welcome).

This does not mean that employers can discriminate in favour of the members of the group when it comes to choosing people to do the work or fill the posts, that is unlawful discrimination.

Positive action is not the same as ‘positive discrimination’, which is where members of a particular racial group are treated more favourably just because they come from that racial group.  Positive discrimination is unlawful.

Race discrimination against at work – what to do

If you feel that another employee or a member of management other than your immediate boss is discriminating against you because of your race, talk to your immediate boss and explain your concerns. Your employee representative (such as a trade union official) – if you have one – may also be able to help.

If your line manager or supervisor is discriminating against you, you should talk to their boss or to the company’s human resource (HR) department.

Be clear in your mind about what you see as discrimination, and if necessary give examples in writing. Many employers have an equal opportunities policy, and you should ask to see a copy of this.

You should also talk to your employer if you are told to act in a way that you think discriminates racially – for example if you are told to treat someone differently because of their race, colour, nationality, ethnicity or national origins.

If your employer doesn’t want to help, you may need to make a complaint using your employer’s grievance procedure. You shouldn’t be victimised for complaining as this would count as race discrimination for employment law purposes.