If you feel you're being treated unfairly at work, there may be a law to protect you. Read on to find out about your rights, and what you can do about discrimination in the workplace.

It's against the law for an employer to discriminate against you because of your race, religion, country of origin, nationality, ethnic group, gender, sexuality or disability.

Sometimes discrimination at work is obvious. If you aren't treated as well as someone else because of something like your skin colour or gender, it's referred to as direct discrimination. But discrimination can also be subtler; imagine a job description that unfairly limits the chances of people from one sex or a particular ethnic group, for example. This is called indirect discrimination.

Racial discrimination

The Race Relations Act makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee (either full or part-time) in Great Britain on the grounds of race (race means colour, nationality, or ethnic or national origins).

An employer must:

  • Allow most jobs and training schemes to be occupied by any race; with the exception of jobs such as modelling, acting, or in places where food or drink is served and a certain race is needed for authenticity;
  • Give all races the same terms in the work contract;
  • Allow all races the same promotion, training, and other opportunities.

Sexual discrimination

Many people, at some stage in their working lives, receive unwelcome sexual attention from colleagues. Sexual harassment covers a whole range of issues, from rude remarks to leering and unwanted physical contact, and in law is seen as direct discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Although it usually applies to women, men can be victims too.

Equal rights

Most jobs, training schemes and apprenticeships must be open equally to both sexes and to people of all ethnic backgrounds. The laws apply to full and part-time work, although a few jobs are excluded from the sex discrimination laws. These include acting, modelling and jobs involving a physical or close contact with the opposite sex. It is also legal for British firms to discriminate for jobs overseas where local customs frown on certain jobs being done by the opposite sex.

Disability discrimination

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is designed to protect certain groups of disabled people from unfair discrimination and it applies to firms of 20 or more employees. It's against the law to treat a disabled person less favourably than someone without the disability, unless it can be justified for a reason related to the disability. The law allows an employer to discriminate only if the disabled person is unsuitable - or less suitable - than the person taken on or if the person's disabilities would make it very difficult for the job to be done. The law, which applies to trainees as well as employees, also states that a firm should make reasonable adjustments to working conditions to allow a disabled person to do their job.

Gay discrimination

Lesbian and gay workers are protected against discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of sexual orientation, thanks to the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003. This legislation bans direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation driven by a person's sexuality.

Discrimination that draws on an assumption about a person's sexuality (regardless of whether the assumption is correct or not) is also ruled out. There's also protection for those who are suffering from discrimination because they associate with people of a certain sexuality.

Age discrimination

The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006 came into force on 1 October 2006. Under the new rules it is against the law to discriminate against you for being too young or too old when it comes to employment, adult education and training.

The rules mean that:

  • Your employer can't treat you unfairly at work because of your age;
  • Employers can't refuse to employ you because of your age;
  • There's no upper or lower age limit for getting redundancy pay;
  • Your employer can't dismiss you because of your age;
  • If you suffer age discrimination, you can make a claim to an employment tribunal;
  • Your age can't be a barrier to getting certain benefits.

Discrimination against religion or belief

The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations were passed in 2003 to stop discrimination on the grounds of someone's religion or beliefs. The regulations are intended to protect students in schools in colleges, as well as those in the workplace. As well as direct and indirect discrimination, the regulations outlaw harassment and victimisation.

Beating discrimination at work

It's best to start by taking informal procedures - try to reason with the person who is treating you unfairly. If that doesn't work, get a third party involved - someone who's impartial if possible - and arrange a meeting where both sides can put their case forward. Keep a written record of any bullying or harassment to back up your claims. If you're a member of a union, now's the time to get them involved.

If this doesn't solve the problem, people with a disability might want to contact the Disability Rights Commission or follow the 'Questions Procedure'. For any kind of discrimination,  the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) offer confidential advice about workplace issues over the telephone. For more advice about dealing with bullying in the workplace, look at our bullying at work article.

If you're finding it impossible to sort things out informally, you may be advised to take your complaint to an employment tribunal. This must be done within three months, or six months if it is a claim under the Equal Pay Act 1970. If you win your case, the tribunal can award damages to compensate you for the losses you have incurred. You may be able to settle your case without the need to go to court but, if not, be prepared for a long and difficult battle, and remember to take legal advice.

With thanks to the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) for help with this article.