Harassment and discrimination in the workplace is a hot topic. It may be “out there”, exposed, front-page news, but is it clear?

I won’t lie to you, harassment and discrimination is complicated subject matter. But whether reading this as employer or employee, it’s good to know the basics.

And hey, if you’ve already got it sussed, a little refresher won’t hurt, or if you’re here because you typed into a search engine “What is harassment in the workplace?” and this article popped up (which means my web guys are doing their job, nice one Andy and team) that’s brilliant, read on!

So let’s get back to basics.

What is discrimination?

Unfair treatment

Is it unlawful?

Yes under the Equality Act 2010, but it is dependent on who is involved, the reasons why and the behaviour used.

When is unfair treatment unlawful?

When it is performed by:

Employer or colleagues as well as employment agencies and the companies the agencies recruit for.

When it is because of:

Age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, sex, sexual orientation – otherwise known as protected characteristics.

When the behaviour involves:

a change to employment terms, termination of employment, or even when offering or not offering a job.

So far so good?

Now for a closer look at the different types of discrimination.

But before we do, when assessing whether unfair treatment is unlawful, it is important to remember the protected characteristics – that is, discrimination because of who you are.

Direct discrimination

Put simply, being treated differently and worse than others because of who you are.

Harassment (the hot topic)

This involves being subjected to unwanted behaviours, comments or jokes (often more commonly known as bants) in a way that is offensive, threatening, humiliating or distressing.

Employers have a duty to prevent harassment between colleagues. This is not limited to the workplace and includes work-related events – the inaugural office Christmas party, for example. Where employers have not adhered to this duty, claims can be brought against both the perpetrating colleague and the employer for allowing this behaviour to exist.

This duty can also extend to harassment by clients or customers. Although employers aren’t responsible for harassment by someone external to the company, if a complaint is raised and nothing is done to stop the harassment, the employer is likely to be held responsible.


Tends to be defined as prolonged harassment; a series of incidents that take place over time.

Indirect discrimination (the tricky one)

This occurs when a policy has introduced that disadvantages you because of who you are. For example, the requirement of all staff to work one weekend a month; however you’re not able to due to your religious beliefs or because of childcare arrangements. Sadly, this does not include missing out on your Saturday morning mixed-martial arts aerobic session.

Disability discrimination

This is related to unfair treatment because of something connected to a disability as well as the disability itself. Importantly, it is also an illegal practice if the employer fails to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace to help you do your job.

Pregnancy and maternity discrimination

This involves unfair treatment because you’re pregnant, due to a pregnancy-related illness or if you have recently had a baby, including dismissal, refusal of a promotion or demotion.

I’ve taken you on a whistle-stop tour of discrimination. Although we may have just got to base camp, hopefully, I’ve either confirmed you’re pretty clued up or set the wheels in motion for a little further exploration. Welcome to Tell Jane. Please visit www.telljane.co.uk to download our free grievance policy advice handout.

Leave a Reply

Back to top