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Direct discrimination at work

This advice applies to England

If you’ve been treated differently and worse by an employer and it’s because of who you are, it could be direct discrimination.

If you’ve been discriminated against, you may be able to do something about it.

Read this page to find out more about direct discrimination at work.

When is it direct discrimination?

The law which says you mustn’t be discriminated against is called the Equality Act 2010. Discrimination which is against the Equality Act is unlawful. This means you can take action in the employment tribunal.

Direct discrimination is when an employer treats you differently and worse than someone else because of who you are. The Equality Act says you’ve been treated less favourably.

You can challenge direct discrimination if it's because of your:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race (including colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins)
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

The Equality Act calls these things protected characteristics.


You work as a cleaner for a small cleaning company. You have a new manager who’s been treating you badly. All the other cleaners are always allowed to leave earlier than you. She also makes you do more work than the others. She tells you off when you can’t do your work in the same time as the others even though they have much less work to do. You think it’s because you’re Black, as all the other cleaners are white. If the reason you’re being treated unfairly is because of your race, it’s direct discrimination and you can take action against your employer.


You’ve been working for your employer for the last few years and are in your late 50s. Recently you were told you were facing redundancy along with one other employee. The other employee is much younger than you and only started work there a few months ago. You scored higher points than the other employee, despite this you were the one made redundant. If the reason you were made redundant is because of your age, it could be direct age discrimination.

Who have you been treated differently and worse than?

To show direct discrimination, you need to show that you've been treated less well than someone else who's in a similar situation to you but who doesn't share your protected characteristic. The Equality Act calls this person a comparator.

When might it not be direct discrimination

There are some situations where it’s not unlawful for an employer to discriminate against you.

If another law allows the employer to discriminate against you

It’s not unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act if the employer treats you less favourably as a result of doing something which is required by another law.

Discrimination based on your right to work in the UK

There are immigration laws which say who’s allowed to come and work in the UK. For example, most people from outside the European Economic Area can only work in the UK if they satisfy a points-based system.

If an employer refuses to employ you because you're not allowed to work in the UK, this is not direct race discrimination.

Other exceptions - occupational requirements

In some situations, an employer can say that only some people who have a particular protected characteristic can apply for a job. The Equality Act calls this an occupational requirement.

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 works with both employers and employees to solve workplace problems.

You can phone the Acas helpline on: 0300 123 1100 and speak to an adviser about your employment problems. The helpline is open 8am-8pm Monday to Friday and 9am-1pm on Saturdays.

You can find useful information about how to sort out work-place problems on the Acas website at

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