Race discrimination at work

Types of race discrimination

It's important to understand the different types of race discrimination, so you know how to deal with them and what your rights and responsibilities are under discrimination law (Equality Act 2010).

Race discrimination includes:

  • direct or indirect discrimination
  • harassment
  • victimisation

There are different rights under discrimination law, depending on which of those is taking place.

If you need some help to understand the different types of discrimination, you can:

Direct discrimination

Direct race discrimination is when someone is put at a disadvantage and treated less favourably because of:

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

Discrimination against someone because of their race

This is when someone is put at a disadvantage and treated less favourably because of their race.


Ade is black. They have a job interview but do not get the job. The person who gets the job is less qualified than Ade, but is white – the employer said they would fit in better with the other white employees. This is likely to be direct race discrimination.

Discrimination by association

It's against the law to discriminate against someone because of the race of someone they know or have a connection with, for example a family member, friend or colleague. The legal term is 'discrimination by association'. It's also known as 'associative discrimination'.


Robin, who's white British, is overlooked for an opportunity to work with a new client. It could have meant a large commission and a bonus. Robin's partner is from India. The management team said that might jeopardise a deal with the client, because they heard the client's chief executive will only work with people who represent 'white British culture'. This is likely to be discrimination by association.

Discrimination by perception

It's against the law to discriminate against someone because of their 'perceived' race, for example thinking they belong to a certain racial group when they do not. The legal term is 'discrimination by perception'.


Thanh's parents were born in Korea. Thanh's manager says Thanh cannot do face-to-face appointments with customers and can only do administrative tasks. The manager says it's because a customer Thanh dealt with asked not to see a Chinese adviser next time.

This is likely to be discrimination by perception. The customer thought Thanh was Chinese and the manager treated Thanh unfairly because of it.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect race discrimination is when a working practice, policy or rule applies to everyone but puts one person or group at a disadvantage because of their race.

'Everyone' could mean all staff in your organisation or any other grouping of staff, for example everyone who works in a particular role or team. This includes:

  • anyone who the working practice, policy or rule applies to now, for example current staff
  • people who it would apply to in the future, for example anyone who applies for a job
  • anyone who would be affected by something an organisation is proposing to introduce

Indirect discrimination can be less obvious than direct discrimination, and it may not always be someone's intention to discriminate.

It can apply to any working practice, policy or rule, whether it's written down or not. Some examples are:

  • dress code
  • policies on ways of working, for example flexible working or working from home
  • selection criteria used in recruitment
  • terms and conditions
  • the way employees are selected for redundancy

For someone to experience indirect race discrimination, all of the following must apply:

  1. The working practice, policy or rule must be the same for everyone within a relevant group of staff or job applicants.
  2. It would put other staff or job applicants with 'the same protected characteristic' at a disadvantage, compared to people who do not have that characteristic.
  3. The individual person is personally put at a disadvantage.
  4. It's a course of action the employer cannot justify if legally challenged.

'The same protected characteristic' means people who share a particular aspect of race. This will depend on the circumstances, for example it could be all South East Asian people or Vietnamese people.

Examples of indirect discrimination

Example 1

A cleaning company needs to reduce their number of cleaners because of a downturn in business. As one of the redundancy selection criteria, the company includes good written English skills, even though the job does not involve writing.

Two of the cleaners are from Bulgaria. They speak English well but they do not have good written English skills. The other two cleaners are from the UK and English is their first language. The employer selects the two cleaners from Bulgaria for redundancy based on their lower level of written English.

This could be indirect discrimination. The cleaners from Bulgaria were put at a disadvantage because their first language is not English, and the employer cannot show there's a need to have good written English.

Example 2

An employer says they need all employees to work some Saturdays, because they're changing the opening days and times for dealing with customer enquiries. This affects everyone who works for the organisation.

One employee is Jewish and observes the Sabbath, so they cannot work on a Saturday. They are put at a disadvantage because of their ethnic group. If the employer cannot legally justify the change and the need for all employees to work on Saturdays, this could be indirect discrimination.

When a decision based on race might not be discrimination

In some cases, it may not be against the law to make a decision based on someone's race. This can be complex and an employer may want to get legal advice.

Find out more about:


Racial harassment is when someone experiences bullying or unwanted behaviour related to race. The most common form of racial harassment at work is racist language.

To be harassment, the unwanted behaviour must have either:

  • violated the person's dignity, whether it was intended or not
  • created an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person, whether it was intended or not

Find out more about harassment

Example 1

Dominique, who's French and has lived in the UK for a long time, moves to a new team at work. Several people in the new team regularly make fun of Dominique's accent and make comments and jokes about being French. Dominique is very offended by this and feels humiliated.

When Dominique complains, their manager does not take it seriously and says people are only joking. Dominique feels this is not acceptable and decides to make a formal complaint.

Example 2

Danny overhears a group of colleagues using racialised opinions and racist terms towards Turkish people. Danny is intimidated and offended by this.

Danny is not Turkish and the language was not directed towards them. But they could still make a complaint of harassment related to race because they feel it's created an offensive environment for them at work.


Victimisation is when someone is treated differently or less favourably as a result of being involved in some way with a discrimination complaint. The law also protects someone from victimisation when someone else thinks they're involved with a complaint.

Someone could be victimised because:

  • they made a complaint about race discrimination
  • they're gathering information that might lead to making a complaint
  • they supported someone else's complaint
  • they said something or gave evidence that did not support someone else's complaint
  • someone else thinks the person has done any of the things above or is considering them

Ways someone could be victimised include being labelled a 'troublemaker', being left out, or not allowed to do something.


Jordan raised a grievance against their employer because of ongoing racist comments and behaviour towards them that managers have ignored. Jordan's colleague Charlie made a statement to support Jordan's complaint after witnessing some of the incidents.

Charlie gets some aggressive emails from a manager about the witness statement. And both Jordan and Charlie are not invited to some important meetings. It's likely they are both being victimised.

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