Race discrimination at work

The law on race discrimination

Race is one of 9 'protected characteristics' covered by discrimination law (Equality Act 2010). The law protects people against discrimination at work – this includes harassment and victimisation.

Employers must do all they reasonably can to protect people from discrimination and take steps to prevent race discrimination at work. This includes recognising the benefits of having an inclusive and diverse workforce that does not exclude anyone because of race.

Discrimination can also be because of more than one protected characteristic – for example race as well as religion or belief.

Who is responsible

Anyone who discriminates against someone at work is responsible for their own actions.

Employers can be held responsible too – this is called 'vicarious liability'.

By law, employers must do everything they reasonably can to protect staff and job applicants from discrimination.

Employers also have a responsibility – a 'duty of care' – to look after the wellbeing of their employees. If an employer does not do this, in some cases it could lead to a serious breach of someone's employment contract. If an employee feels they have no choice to resign because of it, the employer could face a claim of constructive dismissal.

All employers must take steps to prevent race discrimination happening in the first place.

Public sector organisations have an extra legal responsibility to stop discrimination, under the public sector equality duty.

What race means

Someone's race is made up of one or more of these things:

  • colour
  • ethnic origin or ethnic group
  • national origin
  • nationality
  • racial group


This means skin colour, for example black.

Ethnic origin or ethnic group

An ethnic group is a group with shared history and cultural traditions. The group may also share one or more of the same language, literature, religion or geographical origin. They may be an oppressed group or a minority.

Examples of protected ethnic groups include:

  • Irish Travellers
  • Jewish people
  • Romany Gypsies
  • Sikhs

Not all ethnic groups have been recognised as protected by the courts, for example some Gypsy and Traveller groups.

National origin

National origin usually means where someone was born or where their parents are from. It can be different to nationality, for example someone could have Chinese national origin and British nationality.


This means someone's current nationality or citizenship, for example British. It might not be the same as where they were born.

Racial group

People can also be discriminated against because of their racial group. This means a group who share the same colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin. Someone can be part of more than one racial group, for example British and Sikh.

Discrimination because of more than one aspect of race

Discrimination can happen because of one or more aspects of someone's race. For example, someone born in the UK with Nigerian parents could be discriminated against because they're black, because of their British nationality or because of their Nigerian national origin.

What discrimination law covers

Discrimination law covers:

  • direct or indirect discrimination – when someone is put at a disadvantage and treated less favourably because of a protected characteristic, for example race
  • harassment – when bullying or unwanted behaviour is related to a protected characteristic
  • victimisation – when someone is treated differently or less favourably because they made or supported a complaint to do with a protected characteristic, or someone thinks they did or might do

Who is protected by race discrimination law

At work, the law protects the following people against discrimination:

It's against the law to discriminate against someone because of any of the following:

  • their race
  • the race of someone they know or have a connection with, for example a family member, friend or colleague ('discrimination by association')
  • someone's 'perceived' race – this means thinking someone is a certain race when they are not ('discrimination by perception')

Read examples of different types of race discrimination

When an employer can make a decision based on race

In some cases, it might be legal for an employer to make a decision based on someone's race. But the law in this area can be complex. It's a good idea for employers to get legal advice first.

Find out more about when an employer may make a decision based on race

Coronavirus (COVID-19) and race discrimination

Some ethnic minorities have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the pandemic, employees and workers have the same rights as usual to not be discriminated against at work because of their race.

By law, employers must consider this when they make any decisions related to the pandemic, for example:

  • workplace safety
  • ways of working, for example flexible working or hybrid working
  • supporting staff who are at a high risk from COVID-19
  • redundancy

Read our COVID-19 advice for employers and employees

Last reviewed