What is direct and indirect discrimination?

Advice and Guidance

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Direct discrimination

This is when you are treated worse than another person or other people because:

  • you have a protected characteristic
  • someone thinks you have that protected characteristic (known as discrimination by perception)
  • you are connected to someone with that protected characteristic (known as discrimination by association)

Your circumstances must be similar enough to the circumstances of the person being treated better for a valid comparison to be made.

If you cannot point to another person who has been treated better, it is still direct discrimination if you can show that a person who did not have your protected characteristic would have been treated better in similar circumstances.

To be unlawful, the treatment must have happened in one of the situations that are covered by the Equality Act. For example, in the workplace or when you are receiving goods or services.

It is possible to be discriminated against by someone who shares the same protected characteristic as you.

If you have been treated worse due to your age, this may be allowed if the organisation or employer can show that there was a good reason for the difference in treatment. This is known as objective justification. If you are treated worse due to any other protected characteristic, it is unlawful direct discrimination whether or not the organisation or employer has a reason for it.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination happens when there is a policy that applies in the same way for everybody but disadvantages a group of people who share a protected characteristic, and you are disadvantaged as part of this group. If this happens, the person or organisation applying the policy must show that there is a good reason for it.

A ‘policy’ can include a practice, a rule or an arrangement.  

It makes no difference whether anyone intended the policy to disadvantage you or not.  

To prove that indirect discrimination is happening or has happened:

  • there must be a policy which an organisation is applying equally to everyone (or to everyone in a group that includes you)
  • the policy must disadvantage people with your protected characteristic when compared with people without it
  • you must be able to show that it has disadvantaged you personally or that it will disadvantage you
  • the organisation cannot show that there is a good reason for applying the policy despite the level of disadvantage to people with your protected characteristic

If the organisation can show there is a good reason for its policy, it is not indirect discrimination. This is known as objective justification.

Last updated: 25 Nov 2019

Further information

If you think you might have been treated unfairly and want further advice, you can contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service.

Phone: 0808 800 0082

You can email using the contact form on the EASS website.

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