The Subtle Signs of Workplace Discrimination

Discrimination is a complex workplace issue and it can affect people in every section of UK employment. It can occur for a variety of reasons, often linked to employees’ protected characteristics, including gender, age, race and nationality, ethnic or national origins, sexual orientation, disability, religion and belief. In addition to an employer’s actions, discrimination can be the actions of an employee’s agents or colleagues.


Identifying discrimination can be challenging and sometimes, employees can overlook the subtle signs of unlawful discrimination. Understanding the different types of discrimination and being aware of common unfair treatment can help employees recognise when people are acting unlawfully in the workplace, creating a more inclusive and respectful environment. 


Direct Discrimination


Direct discrimination is the most obvious type of discrimination. It occurs when an employee is treated less favourably than others in similar circumstances, simply because of one or more protected characteristics. Examples include not being hired, being overlooked for promotions or receiving unequal pay. Direct discrimination is usually more visible and easier to identify, but that does not make it any less damaging to the employee being treated unfairly.


Indirect Discrimination


Indirect discrimination, on the other hand, is more difficult to detect. It arises from a provision, criterion or practice that applies to everyone but puts specific employees at a disadvantage when compared to the majority. For instance, a workplace rule requiring all employees to work on certain religious holidays could unfairly affect those with certain beliefs. Indirect discrimination highlights the need for employers to evaluate their workplace policies to ensure they do not inadvertently discriminate against certain employees.




Harassment in the workplace involves unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic that has the purpose or effect of violating an employee’s dignity or creating a humiliating, hostile, offensive, degrading or intimidating environment for them. Harassment can cause emotional or physical suffering, and it can be hard to identify. Those responsible for harassment may not always recognise the harm they are causing. It can range from seemingly harmless jokes about someone’s age to more overtly aggressive behaviour about someone’s gender, all of which contribute to a toxic work environment.




Victimisation occurs when an employee faces unfair treatment not for having a protected characteristic themselves but for supporting a colleague’s discrimination claim. This can lead to isolation and punitive behaviours from other employees or superiors, designed to discourage others from speaking up about discrimination. This can not only be harmful to the individuals involved but also create a culture of fear around addressing discrimination.


Examples of Subtle Signs of Discrimination


Recognising the subtle signs of workplace discrimination is essential for creating an inclusive working environment. While some types of discrimination are easily identifiable, others are harder to pinpoint. Here are some common examples of behaviours that may indicate discrimination in the workplace; 


  • Exclusion from Meetings or Projects – Being consistently left out of important meetings or projects can be a sign of discrimination, especially if those opportunities are given to others with similar roles and qualifications. This exclusion could be based on protected characteristics, subtly undermining an employee’s ability to succeed in their career.


  • Microaggressions – Microaggressions are subtle, often unintentional, expressions of prejudice and bias. These can include careless comments, jokes or actions that, on the surface, seem harmless or unrelated to work but create a hostile environment for the employees being targeted.


  • Differential Treatment in Flexibility – If certain employees are granted more flexibility in their schedules, like hybrid work options or understanding for late arrivals, while others are not and there is no objective reason for this, it could indicate discrimination. This differential treatment may be related to assumptions or stereotypes about an individual’s family responsibilities, lifestyle or capabilities.


  • Being Overlooked for Training or Development Opportunities – Employees who are overlooked for training and development programmes or promotions may be experiencing discrimination. This unfair treatment can hinder their professional growth and reinforce existing disparities within the organisation.


  • Unwarranted Scrutiny or Micromanagement – Excessive scrutiny or micromanagement of one employee or group of employees can be a form of discrimination at work. This behaviour can stem from biased perceptions of an employee’s abilities based on their protected characteristics.


  • Inequitable Application of Rules – When workplace rules or policies are applied unevenly, with some employees facing more stringent enforcement than others without a clear rationale, it may signal underlying discrimination. This could manifest in dress codes, break times or other aspects of workplace conduct.


Identifying these subtle signs requires a good understanding of the different ways discrimination can occur. Any employees who notice these patterns should document instances, seek legal support and consider discussing their concerns with HR.


Reporting and Addressing Discrimination


All organisations should have discrimination policies in place to provide employees with guidance about reporting and addressing complaints. This is essential to creating an environment where diversity is valued and protected characteristics are respected. If you think you have been treated unfairly, the first step is to read these policies and raise a grievance with the appropriate member of staff. It is beneficial to document incidents and if necessary, consult with legal professionals specialising in discrimination and employment law. 


The Equality Act 2010 (EqA) is the key piece of UK legislation that protects employees against discrimination at work. You may be able to take a discrimination claim to the Employment Tribunal and get some compensation from your employer. It is beneficial to discuss this with an employment law specialist and they will be able to provide you with some guidance based on the specific circumstances you have experienced. 


Get Some Support with Discrimination at Work in London 


While discrimination in the workplace can be overt, it often manifests in subtle ways that make it harder to detect and resolve. Knowing about the different types of discrimination and the common ways employees are discriminated against can help you identify discriminatory behaviour. By taking proactive steps to combat this issue, you can promote a culture of inclusivity for all employees and ensure everyone is treated with respect. 


Here at Nationwide Employment Lawyers, we assist clients who have experienced discrimination at work in London. We offer guidance and support to help employees navigate complex situations, ensuring you get the compensation you deserve. Our team has up to twenty years of experience in discrimination and employment law, and we provide a seamless and cost-effective service. When you turn to us, you will have direct personal contact with your lawyer and they will only be a phone call away. You can have peace of mind from start to finish that your discrimination case is in very capable hands. 

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