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What's the difference? Direct and indirect discrimination

In equality legislation, there's an important distinction between direct and indirect discrimination. It's unlawful to discriminate against people who have 'protected characteristics' - treating someone less favourably because of certain attributes of who they are. This is known as direct discrimination.

The protected characteristics include: age, disability, gender reassignment, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sex.

You don't have to have a protected characteristic to be discriminated against. If someone thinks you have a characteristic and treats you less favourably, that's direct discrimination by perception.

Similarly, if you're treated less favourably because a colleague, associate, family member or friend has a protected characteristic, that would be direct discrimination by association. It's also possible to be discriminated against for not holding a particular (or any) religion or belief.

Examples of direct discrimination include dismissing someone because of a protected characteristic, deciding not to employ them, refusing them training, denying them a promotion, or giving them adverse terms and conditions all because of a protected characteristic.

Indirect discrimination occurs when an organisation's practices, policies or procedures have the effect of disadvantaging people who share certain protected characteristics.

Indirect discrimination may not be unlawful if an employer can show that there is an 'objective justification' for it. This involves demonstrating a 'proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim'.

The aim must be legitimate, and a real objective consideration such as the economic needs of running a business. But arguing that it's more expensive not to discriminate is unlikely to be considered a valid justification.

It must be a proportionate measure too, meaning that the discriminatory impact should be significantly outweighed by the importance and benefits of the aim. There should also be no reasonable, less discriminatory alternative.

There's no objective justification defence for cases of direct discrimination - except on the basis of age. For example, enhanced redundancy payments made to workers above a certain age may not be discriminatory because they reflect the extra problems older workers face when losing their jobs.

View the following guidance video which explains discrimination and each of the protected characteristics further.

Acas can offer you free and impartial advice if you think you're being discriminated against, or think that improvements could be made in the way equality issues are approached in your workplace.

Visit our Equality and discrimination pages for further information, call the Acas Helpline on 0300 123 1100 or talk to Acas' Equality and diversity advisory service for further details.

Acas also runs practical training courses to reduce the likelihood of Discrimination in the workplace, and can help you to identify issues early and improve organisational compliance with the law. Courses include those on Disability discrimination and Equality, diversity and the Equality Act 2010.

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

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