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Understanding discrimination by association and perception

You don't have to have a protected characteristic to be directly discriminated against for it. Two forms of discrimination deal with this: discrimination by association (or associative discrimination); and discrimination by perception (perceptive discrimination).

Discrimination by association

Associative discrimination comes about when someone is treated unfavourably on the basis of another person's protected characteristic.

For example, a candidate who has been told she is getting a job is suddenly deselected after revealing she has a severely disabled child with complicated care arrangements. The withdrawal of the job offer could amount to discrimination because of her association with a disabled person (disability being a protected characteristic).

Discrimination by association doesn't apply to all protected characteristics. Marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity are not covered by the legislation.

Nor does it apply to instances of indirect discrimination by association - it has to be direct. However, legal experts have pointed to developments in the European Court of Justice which suggest that this is an area that could change.

Discrimination by perception

When someone is treated unfavourably because others believe they have a protected characteristic, even though in reality they don't have it, it is perceptive discrimination.

A possible example of this is an employee who is rejected for promotion to a supermarket buying team that sources wines, because he has an Arabic name. The employer has assumed that he is a Muslim and won't want to deal with alcohol.

This could be considered discrimination by perception, whether or not the employee is a Muslim.

As with associative discrimination, perceptive discrimination does not apply to marriage and civil partnership, nor pregnancy and maternity, and it must be direct discrimination.

Acas publications and services

Acas has guidance on Equality and discrimination, which discusses in detail the different types of discrimination, harassment and victimisation, as well as the nine protected characteristics.

The guide pdf icon Asking and responding to questions of discrimination in the workplace [164kb] aims to help you establish the facts, resolve concerns and avoid disputes if employees feel they have been treated unfavourably at work because of a protected characteristic.

Acas experts can visit your organisation and help you with issues related to bullying, harassment and discrimination, as well as your equality and diversity policy. See Equality and diversity: how Acas can help for more details.

Practical training is also available on Discrimination, Equality, diversity and the Equality Act 2010, Discipline and grievance, and Skills for supervisors.

For free, impartial advice and guidance visit Acas Helpline Online.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects area for more information.

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