Indirect discrimination

Discrimination doesn't come in just one form

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Thursday, Sep 22, 2022

You might have heard of direct discrimination, which is when you treat someone differently because of who they are.

For example, not employing someone because they have a foreign-sounding name is direct race discrimination.

But are you aware of indirect discrimination? That's a bit more complicated. To help to stop it from happening in your business, we explain what it is with examples of it in the workplace.

What is indirect discrimination?

Indirect discrimination is when you treat an employee the same as everybody else, but it has a negative effect on them.

Say you have a practice, policy or rule that applies to every employee in the same way. Now, that probably sounds like a good thing. But it's not always the case.

It may come as a surprise, but like direct discrimination, treating staff the same can disadvantage people because of who they are, too.

So you may mean well but accidentally end up being discriminatory against someone because of their race, religion, sex and other protected characteristics. And that’s why it’s called indirect discrimination.

It’s a little hard to explain, but it’ll become clearer when you see examples of it in action. Before that, here’s the legal side of it:

Under the Equality Act 2010, it’s against the law to indirectly discriminate against someone. So, if someone feels like you’ve discriminated against them—directly or indirectly—they can use this law to take further action.

Now that you know what indirect discrimination is, we’re going to explain the different forms it can take in the workplace.

Examples of indirect discrimination in the workplace

Indirect racial discrimination

Satish has recently moved to the UK from India. He's looking for a job and sees one that he wants to apply for. But the job advert specifies that all candidates must have UK qualifications. Satish doesn't have these so doesn't apply for the job.

This could be an example of indirect racial discrimination because anyone educated outside the UK can't apply for this position. This puts certain races at a disadvantage. But it might not be indirect discrimination if the employer can prove that there's a reason why they need applicants with UK qualifications.

Want to know more? Read about an indirect racial discrimination case between a pupil and his school.

Indirect religious discrimination

Rachel is a Jewish woman working in a department store. Her manager tells her that she's changing her rota to include one Saturday shift per month.

She explains that she is unable to work Saturdays because it is a religious day. Her manager says it would be unfair to the other employees if she took her off the shift.

Rachel could complain about indirect religious discrimination in this situation. This is because this new policy, where all staff must work a Saturday shift, means that she can't practise her religion. It also puts people who share her religion at a disadvantage in comparison to other faiths.

Indirect sex discrimination

Sarah, who has been on maternity leave, puts in a flexible working request to her employer. She wants to reduce her hours so she can look after her child instead of using childcare. Her manager refuses her request and says everyone that does her job must work full-time.

Sarah could have a case for indirect sex discrimination. This is because having a policy that requires all staff to work full-time will probably have a worse effect on women than men, since they're more likely to care for their children.

The employer also put Sarah at a personal disadvantage because she doesn't want to put her child in nursery full-time.

Find out what happened in another indirect sex discrimination case.

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