Equality at Work: Explaining Discrimination, Harassment, Bullying and Victimisation

The Equality Act 2010 replaced all previous discrimination laws with a single act, making the law easy to understand and to impose. It protects all people from discrimination in the workplace and wider society.

In the context of the workplace, it applies to employers and all “employees” and “workers”.

There is no minimum period of employment for the act to be imposed, unlike for unfair dismissal where you need to have worked at a company for more than two years to bring a claim. This allows the law to cover people who have been discriminated against when applying for a job.


What is covered?

There are different types of discrimination:

  • Direct
  • Indirect
  • Harassment
  • Victimisation
  • Discrimination arising from disability
  • Failure to make reasonable adjustments for a disability

Bullying is also covered under the Equality Act 2010.

It is against the law to discriminate against someone because of their personal characteristics (known as “protected characteristics” under the act). These are:

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



Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination is when you receive less favourable treatment because of a protected characteristic.

You can also be directly discriminated against on the basis of who you know, not just who you are. For example, if you are the parent of a disabled child and you are not given a promotion because of your disabled child, this is considered direct discrimination.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination is where a rule, policy or practice applies to all but has a worse effect on some people more than others. For example, a company could impose a rule stating no employees can wear headscarves, which could discriminate against Muslim employees.

Disability discrimination

You are classed as disabled if you have a physical or mental impairment which has a ‘long term’ or ‘substantial’ adverse effect on your ability to do day-to-day activities.

If you have a progressive condition (i.e. one that gets worse over time), you may be classed as disabled. You are automatically classed as disabled if you have cancer, HIV or multiple sclerosis.

Employers must make reasonable adjustments in relation to employees, applicants and any customers or providers they may deal with.

Reasonable adjustments include making changes to the premises (e.g. adding a lift or ramp), acquiring or modifying equipment, or modifying duties and hours of work.

These reasonable adjustments will depend on the size of the company. What is classed as reasonable for a large business may be unreasonable for a small business.



Harassment is unwanted conduct related to protected characteristics, which has the purpose or effect of violating dignity, or creating a hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

A one-off incident or comment can constitute harassment. The effect is important, not just what was intended (‘the purpose’). For example, if you tell a joke with no intention to offend but it does.

Someone may have a claim if they are offended by comments or behaviour not directed at them.

Work functions with a social element outside the workplace, such as Christmas parties, are also covered.

Harassment can include:

  • Verbal abuse/threats
  • Imagery
  • Facial expressions
  • Jokes, pranks, office ‘banter’
  • Excluding someone from certain activities
  • The allocation of tasks/allocation of overtime (i.e. if someone is being put on overtime all the time and no one else is)
  • Spreading rumours
  • Overbearing supervision or misuse of power
  • Sexual advances



To pursue a claim for victimisation, employees must show that they have done a “protected act”, such as raising a grievance, and they have suffered a detriment. For example, if the employee raised a grievance against their employer and they were then made redundant or fired.

If the accusation is false information and the employee knows it to be false, it is not a protected act and is therefore not covered.



Unlike harassment, bullying does not have to be on the basis of a protected characteristic.

Bullying can include:

  • Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour
  • An abuse or misuse of power which is meant to undermine, humiliate or injure the person on the receiving end

This includes, for example, excluding colleagues from meetings or communications or making inappropriate remarks about someone’s performance.

Bullying does not include appropriate criticism of an employee’s behaviour or proper performance management.


What should you do if you have been treated unfairly at work?

If you feel uncomfortable but you don’t initially want to escalate an issue, you can politely and firmly explain that you are uncomfortable with it and ask that it stops.

This applies as much to inappropriate client behaviours or comments from other members of staff – with clients you may want to involve your supervisor immediately and should do if in any doubt.

If it persists, escalate the matter to your line manager.

Do not suffer in silence.


Further information

If you’ve been the victim of harassment, victimisation, bullying or discrimination at work, First4Lawyers’ expert employment solicitors may be able to help. Call us today or request a callback from our team.

Get in touch today to discuss your requirements 08005677866

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