Indirect Discrimination: Unseen Inequality in Your Workplace

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This article uncovers the subtleties of indirect discrimination, empowering you to dismantle hidden barriers and foster a truly inclusive workplace.

What is indirect discrimination?

Indirect discrimination refers to situations where seemingly neutral practices, policies, or rules disproportionately disadvantage individuals or groups based on their protected characteristics, such as age, race, gender, religion, disability, or sexual orientation.

While these practices may not appear discriminatory, their impact can result in unfair treatment and hinder the advancement of specific individuals or groups.

In this article, we will delve into indirect discrimination, explore its various types, discuss the difference between direct and indirect discrimination, and provide practical guidance on preventing and addressing it in the workplace.

By following these recommendations, employers can cultivate an environment that upholds the principles of equality, fairness, and respect for all employees.

Useful read: Discrimination in the Workplace: Best Preventative Practices 

Importance of preventing indirect discrimination in the workplace

Creating a workplace free from discrimination is not only a legal obligation for employers in the UK but also a fundamental aspect of promoting a fair and inclusive environment.

While direct discrimination is often easier to identify, indirect discrimination can be more subtle and insidious, making it essential for employers to proactively prevent and address this form of discrimination.

Upholding legal obligations:

The Equality Act of 2010 is the cornerstone of anti-discrimination legislation in the UK. It prohibits indirect discrimination based on nine protected characteristics such as age, race, gender, religion, disability, etc.

Employers are legally responsible for ensuring that their practices, policies, and rules do not disproportionately disadvantage employees with these protected characteristics.

Fostering inclusion and diversity:

Indirect discrimination undermines efforts to create an inclusive and diverse workforce. It perpetuates unfair advantages for specific individuals or groups while hindering the progress and opportunities of others.

Employers can cultivate a workplace that celebrates diversity, embraces different perspectives, and promotes equal opportunities for all employees by preventing indirect discrimination.

Useful read: What is an Equal Opportunities Policy and Why Your Team Needs One

Enhancing employee well-being and engagement:

Employees who experience indirect discrimination may feel undervalued, excluded, and disengaged. This can negatively impact their morale, motivation, and overall well-being.

Conversely, when employees feel treated fairly, and their contributions are recognized, they are more likely to be engaged, productive, and loyal to the organization.

Protecting employer reputation:

Employers that fail to address indirect discrimination risk legal consequences and damage their business reputation.

In today's interconnected world, news of discriminatory practices can spread rapidly, leading to public scrutiny, negative publicity, and the potential loss of clients, customers, and talented employees.

Proactively preventing indirect discrimination helps safeguard the organization's reputation as an inclusive and ethical employer.

Useful read: The Inclusive Workplace: A Step-by-Step Guide to Diversity

Encouraging innovation and creativity:

Inclusive workplaces that support and value diversity foster an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their unique perspectives, ideas, and experiences.

Employers can tap into their workforce's diverse talents and viewpoints by avoiding indirect discrimination and harassment and driving innovation, creativity, and problem-solving capabilities.

Useful Read: How to Build a Comprehensive Anti-Harassment Policy

Meeting customer and client expectations:

In an increasingly diverse society, customers and clients expect the organizations they engage with to demonstrate a commitment to equality and fairness.

By actively preventing indirect discrimination, employers can align their practices with societal expectations, building trust, loyalty, and positive relationships with their stakeholders.

Types of indirect discrimination

wooden-figures-of-men-stand-on-a-blue-background-a-2022-06-18-00-36-55-utc_50-2Indirect discrimination can manifest in various ways, affecting employees with different characteristics.

It can arise from practices, policies, or rules that may appear neutral on the surface but hurt specific individuals or groups. Common types of indirect discrimination include:

  • Indirect racial discrimination
  • Indirect religious discrimination
  • And indirect sex discrimination.

Difference between direct and indirect discrimination

Direct discrimination involves overtly treating someone less favourably due to characteristics like race, gender, or disability. It occurs when an individual is directly targeted and subjected to discriminatory actions or decisions based on their specific attribute.

For example, refusing to hire someone solely because of their age or paying an employee less based on gender would be considered direct discrimination. It is explicit, intentional, and easily identifiable.

On the other hand, indirect discrimination is more subtle and occurs when seemingly neutral policies, practices, or rules disproportionately disadvantage individuals with a particular protected characteristic only.

It may not be driven by explicit prejudice, but it still results in unfair treatment. Indirect discrimination can arise when a fair requirement or condition has a disparate impact on a particular group.

For instance, implementing a mandatory height requirement for a job role may disproportionately exclude individuals from specific racial or ethnic backgrounds.

Unlike direct discrimination, indirect discrimination may not be immediately apparent and requires a careful analysis of the policies or practices in question to identify its discriminatory effect.

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Preventing direct and indirect discrimination in the workplace

To prevent direct and indirect discrimination, employers should take proactive measures. This includes:

  1. Developing Equal Opportunities Policies: Implementing comprehensive policies that promote equality, diversity, and inclusion in all aspects of employment.

  2. Reviewing Practices, Policies, and Rules: Regularly assess existing practices, policies, and rules to ensure they do not inadvertently discriminate against individuals or groups based on a protected characteristic.

  3. Providing Diversity and Inclusion Training: Educate employees on unconscious bias, stereotypes, and the importance of treating everyone fairly and equitably.

  4. Promoting Transparent Recruitment and Selection Processes: Implement procedures focusing on merit, skills, and qualifications rather than discriminatory factors.

  5. Encouraging Reporting and Addressing Complaints: Establish a safe and supportive environment where employees feel comfortable reporting discrimination and promptly address complaints through appropriate channels.

What's a practice, policy, or rule?

Practices, policies, and rules refer to the standards and guidelines that govern the behaviour and decision-making within an organization.

These include recruitment and promotion practices, dress codes, working hour policies, performance evaluation systems, etc. It is essential to ensure that these aspects do not result in indirect discrimination by disproportionately affecting individuals with protected characteristics.

Who can be indirectly discriminated against?

As the Equality Act outlines, individuals with the same protected characteristic can be indirectly discriminated against.

These characteristics include age, race, gender, religion, disability, sexual orientation, etc.

Employers must consider the potential impact of their practices, policies, and rules on individuals from diverse backgrounds and ensure fairness and equal opportunities for all employees.

Can an employer justify their policy or actions?

In some instances, employers may be able to justify a practice, policy, or action that indirectly discriminates against individuals or groups.

To justify such actions, employers must demonstrate that they have a legitimate aim and that the means they have chosen are proportionate and necessary to achieve that aim.

However, it is essential to note that justifying indirect discrimination is a complex legal matter, and employers should seek legal advice when considering such an objective justification.

Indirect racial discrimination in the workplace

preventing-workplace-discriminationRacial indirect discrimination means policies, or rules inadvertently disadvantage individuals from specific racial or ethnic backgrounds or certain group.

For example, requiring a hairstyle that predominantly suits a particular race may indirectly discriminate against individuals with different hair textures or styles.

Employers should be aware of such potential biases and ensure their policies promote diversity and inclusivity.

Streamline your employee development

Efficient employee development processes can help minimize the risk of indirect discrimination. By providing equal access to training, mentoring, and advancement opportunities, employers can ensure that employees from all backgrounds have an equal chance to enhance their skills and progress in their careers.

Examples of indirect discrimination in the workplace

Indirect discrimination can occur in various forms and affect different protected characteristics. Some examples include:

  1. Requiring a minimum height requirement for a job role indirectly discriminates against individuals with certain disabilities or specific racial backgrounds.

  2. Implementing inflexible working hours that disproportionately affect individuals with caregiving responsibilities, primarily impacting women.

Indirect religious discrimination in the workplace

One example of indirect discrimination occurs when policies, or rules unintentionally disadvantage individuals based on their beliefs.

Employers should be mindful of religious observances, accommodations, and dress codes to ensure inclusivity and respect for all employees' religious rights.

How to deal with complaints for unlawful indirect discrimination

All employers should establish clear and effective complaint procedures to address complaints related to unlawful indirect discrimination.

These procedures should ensure confidentiality, impartial investigation, and appropriate actions based on the findings. Promptly addressing complaints fairly can help maintain trust, transparency, and a discrimination-free work environment.

Are other people disadvantaged?

Indirect discrimination impacts individuals directly affected by a particular policy or practice and can lead to broader disadvantages for specific groups. Considering the potential cumulative effects and implications of indirect discrimination is essential to ensure fairness and equal opportunities for all.


Preventing indirect discrimination is crucial for creating a fair and inclusive workplace where all employees have equal opportunities and are treated with respect.

By understanding the different types of indirect discrimination, distinguishing them from discrimination, and implementing proactive strategies to prevent and address discrimination, employers can foster a diverse and harmonious work environment that values and celebrates every individual's unique contributions.

Topic: HRM
Rinaily Bonifacio

Written by:

Rinaily Bonifacio

Rinaily is a renowned expert in the field of human resources with years of industry experience. With a passion for writing high-quality HR content, Rinaily brings a unique perspective to the challenges and opportunities of the modern workplace. As an experienced HR professional and content writer, She has contributed to leading publications in the field of HR.


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