There’s no place for discrimination in the workplace or indeed in any part of our society. Discrimination limits opportunities, fuels social inequality, promotes injustice, harms individuals, and impoverishes the whole of society.

As business owners, hiring managers, or HR professionals, we have a moral and legal duty to avoid discrimination within our organisation. But can we identify all types of discrimination? And do we know what to do when we find it?

We’ll look at the different types of discrimination, why they are a problem, and what you can do to reduce and hopefully eliminate them within your workplace.

Protected characteristics

Discrimination is illegal in the UK if it occurs because of a “protected characteristic”. Nine characteristics are protected in law.


Employers in the UK are not permitted to discriminate against someone because of their age. This includes paying someone less than a colleague because they are younger or refusing someone a job because they are above a certain age.


It’s also illegal to discriminate against someone based on a disability. In practice, this typically means that employers are required to make “reasonable adjustments” to enable disabled persons to do their job effectively.

Gender reassignment

Discrimination based on someone’s gender reassignment is also not permitted. Staff undergoing gender-affirming healthcare, for example, should be given the same time off for medical appointments as other staff.

Marriage or civil partnership

Treating someone differently at work based on their marriage or civil partnership is not permitted. For example, someone’s marital status cannot be considered during pay negotiations.

Pregnancy and maternity

Similarly, denying someone opportunities at work because they are pregnant, are not pregnant, might become pregnant, or because they have children isn’t permitted.


Discrimination based on race is one of the first things most people think of when imagining discrimination at work. Race isn’t just the colour of someone’s skin. It also includes ethnic origin, nationality, and national origin.

Religion or belief

Religious, spiritual, and sincerely held philosophical beliefs are all protected characteristics. Political views are explicitly excluded. An absence of belief, such as atheism or agnosticism, is also covered.


The law states that no one should be discriminated against because of their sex.

Sexual orientation.

All sexual orientations are protected characteristics, meaning that it is unlawful to discriminate on this basis.

Four different types of discrimination

Here at crooton, we love to talk about the positive aspects of DEI; how to promote diversity, ensure equity for our employees, and build a culture of inclusion. Discrimination is the dark shadow behind our DEI efforts.

We’ve already discussed the four pillars of diversity and inclusion. Here are the four facets of discrimination.

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination is the ‘typical’ form of discrimination. It’s the image we have in mind when we talk about discrimination in the workplace. Direct discrimination is when an individual is mistreated because of something unrelated to their ability to do the job.

Direct discrimination refers to any form of unfavourable treatment based on a protected characteristic. This might include changing someone’s hours or duties, limiting their access to development opportunities, or even choosing not to hire them.

Direct discrimination is personal. It’s unfair treatment of an individual, even if everyone who shares that characteristic would be treated the same.

For example, refusing to hire someone black directly harms a black candidate who is rejected. If many black candidates apply, they are all the victims of direct discrimination.

Discrimination by perception

Direct discrimination can occur, even if someone doesn’t have the protected characteristic. It simply requires the person in authority over them to believe that they do and treat them differently. 

For example, suppose someone is passed over for promotion because they are assumed to be gay. In that case, they will have a claim for direct discrimination by perception based on sexual orientation.

Discrimination by association

Direct discrimination also includes when an employer discriminates against someone because they are associated with someone with a protected characteristic.

This might include treating an employee differently because they have a disabled child (discrimination based on disability) or because they are in a mixed-race relationship (discrimination based on race). 

Read our recent post about discrimination by perception and association to learn more. 

Indirect discrimination

Where direct discrimination can be thought of as targeting an individual, indirect discrimination occurs when policies disadvantage people with a particular characteristic. This often makes indirect discrimination more subtle.

Indirect discrimination occurs when a policy is put into place that impacts one group more than another. For example, requiring all staff to work on Sundays might discriminate against Christians.

Organisations can have these rules, provided they can objectively justify them. The example above would be unlikely to be considered acceptable, as Christian staff could be offered alternative weekend working.

Another example might be having a minimum height requirement for a specific role. This could be the basis for sex or race discrimination, as women and some racial groups are typically shorter.

If the height requirement was required for safety, it might not count as discrimination. Still, the organisation would be expected to have considered alternative ways of ensuring employee safety that did not disadvantage some groups.


Harassment is a form of discrimination where a manager or coworker mistreats an individual on the basis of a protected characteristic.

Where direct and indirect discrimination usually comes from the actions or decisions of the leadership team, anyone within an organisation can be guilty of harassment of their colleagues.

Harassment is any action that violates someone’s dignity or humiliates, excludes, or intimidates them.

Harassment, in particular, creates a toxic work environment and undermines any sense of trust or psychological safety within your organisation. To better understand why trust and psychological safety are essential for your organisation, check out our recent blog post.

Managers should be alert for harassment. This might be overt bullying, belittling someone, using discriminatory nicknames or outright slurs, or spreading rumours (especially those based on discriminatory stereotypes).


Anyone who complains about or reports discrimination or harassment is also protected from repercussions due to their complaint (assuming that they have complained in good faith).

It is illegal to punish someone for voicing their concern over discrimination, for example, by labelling them a ‘troublemaker’ or limiting their opportunities in the future. 

How to avoid discrimination when hiring

The best antidote to discrimination in the workplace is to adopt inclusive hiring practices. When we focus on trying to create a welcoming, safe workplace with diverse teams and honest, respectful communication, there’s no space for direct or indirect discrimination.

Avoiding discrimination when hiring isn’t just about obeying the law. It’s also an essential part of finding the best candidates and helping new hires to achieve their potential.

Create a standard set of (relevant) evaluation criteria

No matter how hard we try, we all have some implicit bias, even if we’re often unaware of it. Standardising your evaluation criteria helps to remove much of this subjective bias.

To avoid implicit discrimination in your hiring, consider the evaluation criteria you include carefully. Often, implicit bias creeps in when we use a criterion as a proxy for what we’re looking for.

For example, many jobs ask for a certain number of years of experience in similar roles or working with particular tools. We’re using time as a proxy for the skills we actually need, but this can discriminate against younger workers.

Ask whether there’s another way to evaluate those skills. You could ask candidates to take a short test or ask how they would approach a particular problem. These are a more direct (and less discriminatory) way of evaluating the same qualities.

Automating aspects of your recruitment process is also a good way to remove bias and boost diversity.

Use non-discriminatory and inclusive language

We’ve previously talked about how to create an inclusive job advert, but non-discriminatory language should be the norm for all your promotional, marketing, recruitment, and even internal communications.

Paying attention to your language can have knock-on effects that reduce discrimination and bias. Focusing on inclusive language requires that you put yourself into someone else’s shoes and understand their unique perspective. This can help you see the world a little differently.

Seek feedback from candidates

Whether successful or not, candidates will have the most relevant experience of your hiring process and will often have great ideas about how to improve. Asking candidates for their feedback can help you identify lingering areas of discrimination and bias, which you can then address.

It might feel awkward to ask unsuccessful candidates for suggestions to help you improve your hiring. Still, it can be valuable as part of continuing to build a relationship with candidates you may want to hire at a later date.

Check out our post on when to notify unsuccessful candidates for a more detailed explanation.

Get in touch for help with fair hiring practices

Fair, equitable hiring decisions are better for your organisation. Get in touch with crooton’s dedicated team of experts. We’re here to offer friendly advice and help your organisation hire without discrimination. And keep up to date with all the latest recruitment topics by reading the crooton blog.