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Indirect discrimination at work - specific situations

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Indirect discrimination is unlawful under the Equality Act. If you've experienced unlawful discrimination at work, you may be able to do something about it.

This page explains about situations where you may have been indirectly discriminated against at work.

What’s indirect discrimination?

Indirect discrimination is when you’re treated in the same way as other people at work, but it has a worse effect on you because of who you are - for example, because of your religion or because you’re a woman or another characteristic which is protected under the Equality Act 2010.

In some situations, an employer can justify indirectly discriminating against you. This will be allowed where the employer has a good enough business reason for applying the policy, rule or practice and that they have considered its impact on people who share your situation.

Dress-codes and appearance

If your employer has a dress-code or rules on appearance which apply to all its employees it may indirectly discriminate against you, for example, if you have a particular religion or belief or are of a particular gender.

For example, it may mean you can’t wear certain religious symbols, like jewellery or head coverings. If this is the case, you may be able to complain you’ve been indirectly discriminated against.


A hairdressing salon has a policy which says hairdressers aren’t allowed to cover their hair. This is because they think it’s important staff show off their haircuts. You’re a Muslim and wear a headscarf in public. You want to apply for a job but you’ve been told you can’t wear your scarf because of the policy.

The policy applies to all staff in the same way but it has a worse effect on you because of your religion. This is likely to be indirect discrimination because of your religion unless the employer can justify the policy.

Acas has more guidance on dress codes at work.

Working hours and flexible working

If you’re a woman and you have children or if you care for a disabled child or adult, certain requirements relating to working hours or place of work may indirectly discriminate against you.

If you ask for flexible working and your employer refuses, you may be able to complain to them about indirect discrimination.

Situations where you may be able to complain about indirect discrimination include if:

  • you’re required to work full time or at unsocial hours - for example, early morning or late evening shifts
  • you have a mobility clause in your contract - this is when your contract says you may have to work in different workplaces
  • you need to take time off work to care for someone but your employer won’t let you.


You’ve asked your employer for flexible working as you find it difficult to do late evening shifts because of childcare problems. Your employer has refused your request.

Your employer would have refused a similar request from any staff member. But because you’re a woman with children, the requirement to do evening work has a worse effect on you. As more women than men usually care for their children, this is likely to be indirect sex discrimination unless your employer can justify it.

Time off work for religious reasons

The Equality Act doesn’t require employers to allow you to take time off work for religious observance or to provide a space for worship at work. However, if they refuse, it could be indirect discrimination because of religion and belief.

Situations where you may be able to complain about indirect discrimination include if:

  • you’ve been refused time off work for religious holidays or observance
  • you’re required to work on days of religious significance to you - for example, Sundays if you’re a Christian or Saturdays if you’re Jewish
  • your employer requires you to work at specific times during the day which prevents you from praying.

In each of these cases, you would have to show that the employer’s policy, practice or rule which prevents you from taking time off work puts you and other people who share your religion at a disadvantage compared with others who don't share your religion.

Next steps

Other useful information

Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)

If you have experienced discrimination, you can get help from the EASS discrimination helpline.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

You can find useful information about discrimination on the EHRC website.


Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) provides free and impartial information and advice on all aspects of workplace relations and employment law.

To talk to an adviser about your employment problem, call the Acas helpline on 0300 123 1100.

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