What Is Discrimination?

Recognizing and Responding to Unfair Treatment

Unfair discrimination is a painful and costly problem. It can damage people's well-being, force their working relationships to break down, and prevent them from doing their job. And, while it affects individuals most intensely, the harm that it does can ripple out to your team, your organization, and even beyond.

In this article, we explain what discrimination looks like and the impact it can have. We'll also look at the best ways to respond to it, if it happens to you.

See the transcript for our video, What Is Discrimination?, here.

Defining Discrimination

The word "discrimination" can refer simply to a way of understanding differences: for example, "discriminating between right and wrong." We're technically "discriminating" when we choose between different brands or sources of information.

Nowadays, however, the word "discrimination" is most commonly used to describe unfair or prejudicial treatment of people and groups, based on characteristics such as race, sex, age, disability, religion, or sexual orientation.


All unfair discrimination is harmful, but different territories give legal protection to different characteristics – or, sometimes, none. Read on to learn more about this.

Discrimination can be a one-off act or an ongoing situation. Individuals can be discriminatory in their behavior, but discrimination can also be caused or aggravated by organizational policies and procedures.

There are several different types of unfair discrimination to be aware of:

  • Direct Discrimination – when you're treated unfairly in relation to a protected characteristic. For example, if you were denied a promotion because of your age, while younger people with similar abilities and experience were being promoted, that would likely be direct discrimination.
  • Indirect Discrimination – when a policy or practice at work disadvantages you, or has a disproportionate impact on you, in relation to a protected characteristic. Maybe your organization forces everyone to take a particular day off each week for religious observance, but you don't share the same faith. You could consider that to be indirect discrimination on religious grounds.
  • Discrimination by Association – when you experience unfair treatment because you're linked with a person or group that has a protected characteristic. If you were turned down for a project because you cared for someone with a disability, that would be discrimination by association.
  • Discrimination by Perception – when the person being discriminatory thinks that you have a protected characteristic, or that you're part of a group that does. This would be the case if, for instance, a recruiter made an assumption about your sexual orientation and discriminated against you on that basis.
  • Harassment – when your protected characteristic is the trigger for unwanted behavior from others, causing offense, humiliation or intimidation. If you have a disability and it became the subject of jokes, offensive comments online, or even humiliating physical gestures, that would be a clear example of harassment.
  • Victimization – when you experience negative treatment because you've raised a concern about discrimination or supported someone else to do so. It would likely be victimization if you were moved out of your team because you'd helped a teammate to pursue a sex-discrimination complaint, for example.

The Damage Caused by Discrimination

Discrimination can be harmful to all aspects of your well-being. It's been linked to a range of conditions, including anxiety, depression, hypertension, obesity, and substance abuse. [1] And, sadly, it's a common problem.

In a recent study, 33 percent of American adults cited discrimination as a significant source of stress in their life. This proportion rose to 44 percent among people of color. [2]

Unfair discrimination can also damage teams and organizations, by spreading mistrust, blocking collaboration, and preventing people from using their skills and abilities to the full.


Be sure to get advice from a health professional if you're experiencing physical, mental or emotional problems due to discrimination, and seek support from family, friends and colleagues.

For more detailed advice about how employers and managers can guard against discrimination, and tackle it if it arises, read our article, Dealing With Discrimination.

Discrimination and the Law

The United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out a clear principle of equality and non-discrimination for all. [3] However, nearly a quarter of countries have no laws guarding against racial discrimination. [4] And, in those that do, legislation can differ sharply. [5] In some places – including the U.S. – there are also differences between countrywide and local laws. [6]

So, it's important to know the laws that apply to you. In the U.S., the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission publishes a comprehensive guide. [7] The U.K. government also offers detailed advice. [8]


In the U.K., the government outlines people’s rights in regard to discrimination in the workplace here.

In the U.S., the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice oversees and enforces countrywide-law regarding discrimination. Though state law can vary, so it's worth checking out the state laws that might apply to you, too.

Have You Been Discriminated Against?

As well as referring to the relevant laws, you'll also need to assess your individual situation to decide whether or not you're experiencing discrimination.

If someone's behavior toward you is making you feel singled out, ridiculed, or even harassed, and you think this is because of your personal characteristics, then it could be that you're experiencing unfair discrimination.

Take a look at any relevant policies that are enforced at your workplace. There may be an anti-discrimination policy, or an equality, diversity and inclusion policy (ED&I), that sets out the standards of fairness that everyone should expect. Your organization may make "reasonable accommodations," as they're called in the U.S., for people with disabilities, or "reasonable adjustments," as they're known in the U.K. [9] [10]

Also, check any specific policies – such as those on recruitment, leave of absence, or pay and conditions – if they apply to your situation.

If you believe that you feel you're being treated worse than another person or group, check that this isn't due to legitimate "positive action." In many places, this is a lawful way to give extra help to people with certain characteristics – if they're disadvantaged, have additional needs, or are under-represented in a sector or role. For example, an employer might use positive action to encourage people from an under-represented group to apply for a job, using a statement such as, "We welcome female applicants for this role."

You also need to consider whether there's a justifiable reason for people with protected characteristics to be treated differently. Certain "occupational requirements" may apply. For example:

  • A women's refuge may well be justified in advertising counselor positions to women only, as residents would likely find it difficult to trust and confide in men.
  • Firefighters have to pass rigorous physical tests, which may discriminate against people with certain disabilities. But this is allowed because – even with reasonable accommodations in place – some disabilities may mean that people are unable to fulfill this type role or that it's dangerous for them to do so.

By exploring your situation in these ways, you should have a clearer understanding of whether or not you are being subjected to unfair discrimination. But if you're still unsure, read on to decide what your next steps should be.

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Seeking Informal Solutions to Discrimination

If you're concerned that discrimination is affecting you or others, start by exploring informal ways to resolve the issue. The sooner you can do this, the better, as some problems can be "nipped in the bud" before they escalate. Talk to your manager or someone from your HR team, explain your situation clearly, and ask for their advice and support to solve it.

If things can't be sorted out informally, seek help from a union representative, if you have one, or from an advice organization such as Citizens Advice in the U.K., or the Fair Work Ombudsman in Australia. They may be able to help you to achieve a resolution without taking the issue any further.


In some countries, it's illegal to victimize someone for reporting discrimination, regardless of whether unfair discrimination is eventually proven or not. However, not everyone is protected in this way. So, check your rights and make the most of any protection available. But also seek support from elsewhere, if you need it, during or after raising a concern.

You should also think about the consequences of not reporting discrimination. Left unchecked, unfair discrimination can grow and spread. And, if you don't raise your concerns, individuals and organizations don't get the chance to reconsider their attitudes and practices. Just be sure to keep yourself safe whatever course of action you choose!

Taking Formal Action When You've Been Discriminated Against

If you're unable to resolve your concern informally, your organization may be able to explain the options available to you. These will likely include making a formal complaint (details of which should be explained in a grievance policy, if your organization has one) and taking your discrimination claim to an employment tribunal.

You can also get information about formal action, and the possible outcomes, from union representatives, and from official sources, such as the websites of the U.S. and U.K. governments.

Here are some of the things you'll need to do if you decide to embark on a formal process:

1. Gather Evidence

This could include documents relating to what has happened, such as emails, a written warning, a performance appraisal, or even a termination letter.

Sometimes, however, unfair discrimination involves words or actions that are difficult to document. So, it's a good idea to write down what you experienced or to keep a diary, if the discrimination is ongoing.

Include as much detail as possible, such as what the discrimination entailed, where and when it happened, who did what, who witnessed it, and what your response to it was. And be sure to note the full impact on you, including how it made you feel, and how it affected your work and your relationships with others.

2. Be Assertive

Discrimination can go unrecognized or remain unacknowledged if people minimize it. Use the evidence that you've gathered to back up your claims, clearly and firmly.

3. Get Support

Find out whether you can be accompanied to meetings by a union representative, legal advisor (if you have one), or even a trusted co-worker. This can be a valuable way of boosting your confidence, as well as giving you access to timely advice.

4. Use All Avenues Open to You

Check that you understand all the different ways in which you can make your case, including submitting information in writing and in person, and presenting evidence from others. And be ready to use any appeals process that is available to you if you're not happy with the outcome of your original complaint.

Strengthening Yourself Against the Effects of Discrimination

While some instances of unfair discrimination can be dealt with quickly, others may take time and effort to address satisfactorily. And, even if you're able to resolve your own situation, you may still experience forms of discrimination that you have less power to stop.

So, here are some ways to gain strength in the face of unfair treatment – and to reduce the harm that discrimination can do:

  • Focus on your abilities and experience, as well as your core beliefs and values, to boost your self-esteem, and prevent discrimination from demotivating you or making you feel powerless.
  • Talk to the people you trust – your allies – who can validate your experiences and share their own ways of countering discrimination. [11] Join support groups in your area or online, if they are available.
  • Establish clear boundaries to take more control over how people speak to you and behave toward you.
  • Use relaxation techniques to stay clear-headed, so that you can make the best decisions about how to respond to potential discrimination.

Key Points

Unfair discrimination is the prejudicial treatment of people and groups based on characteristics such as race, sex, age, disability, religion, or sexual orientation. Some of these characteristics are "protected" in particular territories.

Discrimination can be direct, indirect, by association, by perception, harassment, or victimization.

Anti-discrimination laws vary around the world. There may also be a variety of policies in place that are designed to protect you at work.

If you suspect that you are experiencing unfair discrimination, start by having an informal discussion with your employer to resolve the situation.

If necessary, you can then make a formal complaint, raise a grievance, or take your case to an employment tribunal.

Be sure to access all support available, and find ways to stay safe and strong throughout the process.

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