In the UK, it is against the law to discriminate against someone because of who they are. This includes their sex, race, religion, age, and disability. Direct discrimination can be about any of these or anything else that is protected under the Equality Act 2010. It is important for employers to understand what direct discrimination means and how it can affect your business.
In this article, we will discuss direct discrimination meaning, how it happens in the workplace, and what you can do to prevent it. We will also look at the potential legal ramifications if one of your employees claims they have experienced direct discrimination while working for you.
What Can Direct Discrimination be About?
There are three main areas that are defined as direct discrimination. These are treating someone differently or unfairly because of:
- Who they are – For example, a woman is not given a job because the employer thinks she will get pregnant and take time off. This is considered direct discrimination because of her sex.
- Who someone else thinks they are – For example, an employer refuses to hire someone because they believe them to belong to a certain religion. This is considered direct discrimination because all British people are legally free to practise any religion they choose.
- Who they associate with – For example, an employer refuses to promote someone because they have a friend of a certain sexual orientation. This is considered direct discrimination because it has nothing to do with the person themselves.
These are clearly broad categories and they can be difficult for a person to prove. However, as an employer, it is very important that you are completely open and equal with how you hire and treat your employees. Any kind of discrimination in the workplace, particularly from an employer to an employee or applicant is simply not tolerated.
What are Protected Characteristics?
The Equality Act 2010 protects certain characteristics that people can have. These are called protected characteristics and they include age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.
If an employee feels they have been discriminated against because of one of these protected characteristics, they can make a claim against you. This can be done through the courts or via an employment tribunal. Even if you are confident that they don’t have a case and you are ultimately proven right, the whole situation can be stressful, costly and could cause enormous reputational harm to your company.
Examples of Direct Discrimination in the Workplace
There are many different ways in which direct discrimination can happen in the workplace. Here are five common scenarios which reflect the types of cases employers face:
- Refusing to promote someone because they are not the ‘right’ sex or gender. For example, if an employer has a policy that only women can be promoted to certain roles, this would be discrimination against men. This is against the law.
- Refusing to allow an employee back from parental leave. This is an employee right in the UK so you cannot deny it just because it will affect your business.
- Refusing to hire someone because they are pregnant or have a family. This can be against the law if it is not related to their ability to do the job. However, if you can prove that the employee’s circumstances would prevent them from doing the job, then you may be able to legally refuse to hire them.
- Treating someone differently because of their race or skin colour. This could manifest itself as making racist comments about an employee or refusing to allow them to join in with company events because of their ethnic background.
- Making assumptions about someone’s ability at work based on a health issue that they have. This could be because of something as simple as a past health issue or a long-term disability but either way, it is discriminatory to treat someone differently because of something they cannot help.
How to Prevent Direct Discrimination in the Workplace
There are many things that employers can do to prevent direct discrimination from happening in their workplace. The most important of these is creating and implementing an equal opportunities policy. This should be made clear to all employees, applicants, and contractors and should outline:
- The protected characteristics are covered in the Equality Act 2010.
- How your company treats all employees, applicants and contractors fairly and how you judge people based on their ability to do a job.
- Information about what will happen if someone complains of discrimination. This should include contact details for someone who can help and information about how the complaint will be investigated.
You should also produce an employee conduct handbook which explains in detail exactly what you expect from your employees. This handbook should include:
- Details of how you expect your employees to behave towards each other in the workplace.
- Rules about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in your company.
- What to do if an employee feels they have been discriminated against by another member of staff. This should include details on who to contact and what will happen as a result of the complaint.
How to Organise Your HR Team
You also need to make sure that you have an HR department that is able to answer any questions that employees have about discrimination and can deal with any issues of potential discrimination. For example, they need to know the laws governing direct discrimination, employees’ rights and how to deal with a complaint in a fair and compassionate way.
There is often a negative perception of the HR department from other employees because of their perceived bias towards management. It is very important that your employees feel comfortable voicing their concerns to HR and that they know they will get fairly treated.
HR departments are often in a tricky position because claims may be made against their superiors. However, it is crucial your company’s HR team understands that they must remain impartial and that they will not be penalised for doing their job.
What are HR Shared Services and How Can They Help?
An effective HR department should be able to deal with the day-to-day running of your company and make sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible. However, this can take up a lot of time and money. This is where shared services come in. With an outsourced HR team, your employees still need to know about discrimination laws and what to do if they experience or witness it, but you don’t have to employ a full-time HR team.
This is a great option for small businesses who want the peace of mind that comes with knowing their employees are being treated fairly and equally, without the added cost of having an in-house HR department.
At Neathouse Partners, we provide our clients with a range of HR services so that they can focus on what they do best. We have a team of experienced and qualified HR professionals who are more than happy to help with any queries or concerns that you may have about discrimination in the workplace. Get in touch with us here to discuss your company’s needs.
What to do if an Employee Claims Direct Discrimination
If one of your employees makes a claim of direct discrimination, it is important to take the allegation seriously. You should immediately begin investigating the situation and speaking to all relevant parties involved. This can be a delicate matter so it is important to deal with the complaint in a fair, compassionate and prompt manner.
While establishing the facts, it may be necessary to temporarily suspend the accused until the investigation is complete. Again, this needs to be dealt with in the right way or you may end up also facing accusations of unfair treatment from that individual too.
To find out exactly what has happened, you should speak to all relevant individuals and ask them for their account of events. If people have different accounts (which is very common), you can also rely on other evidence such as emails, texts or CCTV footage.
Once all of the facts have been gathered, it may be necessary to take disciplinary action against the employee who made discriminatory comments or acted in a discriminatory way towards others. This could result in suspension, retraining or even dismissal depending on the severity of the situation.
If you find that direct discrimination has taken place, the best course of action is usually dismissal because it sends out a clear message that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated in your workplace.
You should also make sure that you deal with any other employees who have been affected by the discriminatory comments or behaviour, as they may be feeling upset and distressed. It is important to reassure them that their safety and wellbeing are your top priority and offer support if it is needed.
The Potential Legal Ramifications for Your Company
As you can see, direct discrimination is unlawful and should be prevented in all workplaces. It can have a negative impact on the people who experience it as well as those around them and this could result in legal action against your company if allegations of discriminatory behaviour are made by an employee or former employee.
If you are being sued for discrimination in the workplace, you may be asked to pay compensation to the victim and/or their family members as well as cover any other costs that have been incurred by them such as lost wages, legal fees or medical bills. You will also face a hefty fine from HMRC which could result in further penalties if the discrimination is found to be deliberate.
As well as these legal consequences, the reputational damage of a direct discrimination claim can be devastating for a company, no matter how big or small. This is why it is essential that you protect yourself by putting clear policies in place and ensuring they are followed at all times.
Why You Need a Lawyer
If an employee claims direct discrimination, it can be very difficult to know what steps to take next. This is why having the help of a lawyer who specialises in employment law will make things much easier for you, as they will be able to advise on all aspects of the situation and ensure that it is resolved in a way that minimises disruption for your business.
At Neathouse Partners, our experienced employment lawyers will be happy to help you with any claims of direct discrimination that may arise in your workplace. We understand how serious this type of allegation can be and will work diligently to get the best possible outcome for all involved.
Our lawyers can also help if you’re worried about potential legal ramifications from an employee claim or future claims by other employees. By having strong policies around discrimination in place and making sure they’re followed, you’ll be less likely to face these legal issues later on.
One of the most common questions we are asked is about direct discrimination meaning and as you can see from this article, it is a very serious matter. There are a number of potential legal ramifications for your company if you are found to have discriminated against one of your employees. The best course of action is always to put policies around discrimination and make sure they are followed at all times so that you can avoid any potential issues long before they arise.
At Neathouse Partners, we have been representing employers in discrimination claims for many years. We can provide you with expert advice and representation if one of your employees makes a claim against you. Contact us today to find out more.