How to challenge discrimination at work

Multipage Guide

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There are three things you can do:

  • Complain informally to your employer.
  • Raise a grievance using your employer's grievance procedures.
  • Make a claim to the Employment Tribunal.

You do not have to choose only one of these. Instead, you could try them in turn. If you cannot get your employer to put things right, then you can make a claim to the Employment Tribunal.

Just be aware that if you do decide to make a claim to the Employment Tribunal, you need to tell them about your claim (by filling in a form) within three months (less one day) of what happened.

You do not have to go to your employer before making a claim to the Employment Tribunal, but there are two reasons for doing this:

  • Making a claim may be demanding on your time and emotions, so before starting the process you may want to look at whether or not you have a good chance of success. You may also want to see if there are better ways of sorting out your complaint. You should think carefully about whether making a claim to the Employment Tribunal is the right thing for you personally.
  • If you do not use your employer's grievance procedures to solve a problem before you make a claim to the Employment Tribunal, and you win your case, the Tribunal can reduce the amount of money it instructs your employer to pay you by up to a quarter if it thinks you acted unreasonably.

Do not forget that even if you try to sort the matter out with your employer first, formally or informally, you must keep to the Tribunal time limits if you want to bring an Employment Tribunal case. In order to keep within the time limit, you may have to start a case before you have finished discussing the matter internally with your employer.

Was it against equality law?

Write down what happened as soon as you can after it happened, or tell someone else about it so they can write it down. Record as much detail as you can about who was involved and what was said or done. Remember, the problem will sometimes be that something was not done.

For example:

If you are a disabled person and you asked for a reasonable adjustment that was not made.

If someone did not change a decision they had made, or stop applying a rule or way of doing things, and this had a worse impact on you and other people with the same protected characteristic (indirect discrimination).

Read the rest of this guide. Does what happened sound like any of the things a person or organisation must or must not do?

Sometimes it is difficult to work out if what happened is against equality law. You need to show that your protected characteristics played a part. The rest of this guide tells you more about what this means for the different types of unlawful discrimination or for harassment or victimisation.

Is your complaint about equality law or is it about another sort of problem at work?

This guide focuses on making a complaint about something that is against equality law. You may have a complaint (which is often called ‘bringing a grievance’) about something else at work, which is not related to a protected characteristic.

Sometimes it is difficult to work out which laws apply to a situation. If you are not sure what to do, you can get advice about your situation from other organisations, particularly the Arbitration and Conciliation Service (Acas), Citizens Advice or your trade union.

It may be that your employer can look into what has happened and decide what to do without it being necessary for you to make a formal complaint.

Often all it needs to stop something happening is for the other person to understand the effect of what they have done or realise that the situation is being taken seriously by your – and their – employer.

This is especially the case if they did not intend something to have the impact it did – for example, if it is indirect discrimination or discrimination arising from disability.

Making a complaint informally means talking to the person at your workplace who can make the situation better. This may be your manager or, if it is your manager who you believe is unlawfully discriminating against you, with someone higher up. In a small organisation, it may be your employer themselves.

It is a good idea to ask your manager or employer for a meeting, so that there is enough time for you to talk about what has happened and to say what you'd like them to do.

The meeting needs to be somewhere where you can talk to your manager or employer without other people hearing what you are saying.

Even though it is an informal meeting, you can still prepare by writing down what you want to say. This can help you make sure you have said everything you intended to.

This may be especially important if you work for a small organisation and it is the person in charge (who may be the only manager) who has done what you want to complain about. If possible, you may get a better result from the meeting if you can explain what has happened in a way that does not immediately make your employer feel you are blaming them for doing something wrong.

If you need help with this, you could contact one of the organisations listed within the Further sources of information section or you could ask your trade union, a colleague or a friend. It may help to practise what you want to say.

Tell the person you are meeting:

  • What has happened
  • What effect it had or is having on you
  • What you want them to do about it, for example, talking informally to the person or people who have done something.

Your manager or employer may need time to think about what has happened and what to do about it. They may need to talk to other people to find out if they saw or heard anything. Tell your manager or employer if you agree to them doing this. If you do not agree, this may make it harder for them to find out what happened.

Your manager or employer should tell you what they are going to do and inform you of the outcome.

If after investigating what has happened your manager or employer decides:

  • no unlawful discrimination took place, or
  • that they are not responsible for what has happened

then they should tell you this is what they have decided within a reasonable timeframe.

If they don't explain why they decided this, you can request this information. They do not have to comply, but if they do it may help you to decide what to do next (for example, if it is worth taking things further).

You then have two options:

  • Accept the outcome
  • Take things further by making a formal complaint using any procedures your employer has for doing this.

If your employer or manager agrees with you that what happened was unlawful discrimination, then they will want to make sure it does not happen again.

You may not need to do anything other than carry on with your job as usual. Or your employer may want you to do something such as meeting the person who discriminated against you. In any case, you may need to go on working with that person.

Don’t feel that you have to do anything you are not comfortable with. However, it may help sort things out to do what your employer suggests, if necessary with some expert help, for example, from your trade union or from another person or organisation, such as a mediator. 

If the discrimination was serious or just one of a series of events, your employer may want to take disciplinary action against the person who discriminated against you. You would probably have to explain to a disciplinary hearing what happened. You may be able to get help or support in doing this from your trade union if you have one.

If your employer does not tell you what they have decided, even after you have reminded them, then you can either make a formal complaint or make an Employment Tribunal claim. Make sure you know when the last day is for bringing your claim so you don’t miss this deadline.

If you are not satisfied with the result of your informal complaint, then you can make a formal complaint using your employer's set procedures. It is the use of the set procedures that makes it ‘formal’.

A formal complaint is often called a ‘grievance’.

Your employer should be able to tell you what their procedures are.

If they don’t have any information they can give you, there is a standard procedure which you can get from Acas. Your employer can use this too if, for example, they don't have their own procedures.

If you are not happy about the outcome of a grievance procedure, then you have a right to appeal.

If you or your employer want to get help in sorting out a complaint about discrimination, you can agree to what is usually called ‘alternative dispute resolution’ or ADR. ADR involves finding a way of sorting out the complaint without a formal Tribunal hearing. ADR techniques include mediation and conciliation.

In complaints relating to work situations, this can happen:

  • as part of an informal process
  • when formal grievance procedures are being used, or
  • before an Employment Tribunal claim has been brought or finally decided.

There are different organisations who may be able to help with this, such as:

There is more information about the options at GOV.UK.

Acas in particular runs a free conciliation service.

The action your employer can take will depend on the specific details of the case and its seriousness. Your employer should take into consideration any underlying circumstances and the outcome of previous similar cases. Actions your employer could take include:

  • Some form of alternative dispute resolution (which is explained above), which may be especially useful where you and the person who discriminated have to carry on working together.
  • Equality training for the person who discriminated.
  • Appropriate disciplinary action (your employer can find out more about disciplinary procedures from Acas).

If your employer hears your grievance and any appeal but decides that you weren't unlawfully discriminated against, they still need to find a way for everyone to continue to work together.

Your employer may be able to do this themselves, or it may be better to bring in help from outside as with alternative dispute resolution (which is explained above).

Last updated: 19 May 2021

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.

Also available through the website are BSL interpretation, web chat services and a contact us form.


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Alternatively, you can visit our advice and guidance page.