The Hidden Signs of Workplace Discrimination: What to Look Out For

emily gordon brown
Emily Gordon BrownLegal Assessment Specialist @ Lawhive
Updated on 15th November 2023

Do you think you are being discriminated against at work? Or have you spotted certain patterns that indicate one of your colleagues is treated unfairly for an issue that doesn’t seem to be related to their work?


In this article we’ll help employees and workers in the UK spot the signs of discrimination in the workplace and empower you to do something about it.

Employment law is designed to protect employees and workers in the UK from facing discrimination. The law protects you against discrimination in the following ways:

  • Dismissal

  • Employment terms and conditions

  • Pay and benefits

  • Promotion and transfer opportunities

  • Training

  • Recruitment

  • Redundancy

If you believe you are being treated unfairly at work you may feel vulnerable and that nothing will change, ‘This is just the way it is’. However, if you don’t speak up, nothing will change for you, or others like you in the same situation. 

By speaking up now you can make things better for yourself and your communities today and in the future, and ensure you have a fair chance of reaching your potential.

In this article we’ll cover:

  • How to recognise the signs of discrimination

  • Real life case studies of discrimination 

  • Where to get the legal support you need

  • How to stop discrimination at your place of work

What is discrimination?

Discrimination at work according to ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration service) is treating someone 'less favourably' than someone else, because of:

  • Age

  • Disability

  • Gender reassignment

  • Marriage and civil partnership

  • Pregnancy and maternity

  • Race

  • Religion or belief

  • Sex

  • Sexual orientation

Knowing the definition is crucial, it can help you spot discrimination and start you on the path to undoing it.

The factors listed above are known as protected characteristics. Discrimination can be any activity or behaviour that puts someone with a protected characteristic at a disadvantage, in relation to an employer or worker that doesn’t have the same characteristic.

Putting someone at a disadvantage is a wide field, however someone might be being put at a disadvantage if:

  • They are excluded from opportunities or benefits

  • Their job is made harder to perform

  • They are caused emotional distress

  • They are caused financial loss

Less favourable treatment doesn’t have to be intended for it to be discrimination and against the law.

Less favourable treatment isn’t always discrimination. Employers may be legally allowed to:

  • Positive action – put in place steps to help a underrepresented or disadvantaged group

  • Objective justification – when an employer can prove less favourable treatment is fair

  • Disability – employers can specifically recruit someone that is disabled without it being classed as discrimination

  • Occupational requirement – recruiting someone because of their protected characteristic 

Signs of discrimination

Here we’ll outline some of the signs of discrimination, because you can’t change what you can’t see. 

Biased language and stereotypes 

Discriminatory comments about language and stereotypes are often disguised as good-natured humour. When making negative comments about someone’s race and gender people might say ‘I’m only joking’, or ‘Don’t take it so seriously, it’s just banter'.

This subtle form of discrimination is just as widespread and damaging as other forms of discrimination and the casual nature of stereotypes can lead to wider issues of abuse and systemic discrimination.

This form of discrimination others people, reducing workplaces to ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Unequal treatment or opportunities

If you are being treated differently at work, and you are regularly overlooked for promotion and training opportunities to take your career to the next level, you could be being discriminated against. The basis for these rewards should be on fair and measurable factors.

You could be being discriminated against if less experienced colleagues get promoted before you.

Examples include:

  • A pregnant women being overlooked for promotion because they are on maternity leave or are planning to go on maternity leave

  • Someone being denied training because they are not as well liked as another member of staff, or they’re not marked for higher positions

  • A manager showing favouritism to a friend over other members of staff

Lack of diversity and inclusion

Lack of diversity can be a sign of systematic discrimination in a workplace. Perhaps you have no one else of a similar racial background to you in your department. Or, you might have noticed that there is no one like you in a leadership position, which makes you feel that you may never be able to get to the role you want.

In terms of inclusion, a lack of inclusion can be demonstrated when someone is being discriminated against because of a protected characteristic. You might be excluded from a group because of your age for instance, whether you’re at the beginning or nearing the end of your career. Have you ever been excluded from after works drinks or a seasonal party for instance?

Unequal pay

You might be paid less as a colleague approaching retirement than a younger hire, due to your workplace’s desire to fill a role. Or as a woman, have you discussed pay with male colleagues that do the same role as you and found out you’re paid less?

This could be an indication of discrimination and you could make a claim for unequal pay.

Unfair dismissal

You might have been dismissed and given a reason you don’t agree with which seems unconnected to your performance. This could be discrimination and could be classed as unfair dismissal. You may also feel you’re being dismissed as revenge, or to keep you quiet if you’ve spoken up about other issues that aren’t right, that management would rather hide.


This form of discrimination could be in place if your boss or a senior member of staff is friends with one of your colleagues and offers them benefits like increased pay or promotion at an unfair rate, or more often than other deserving colleagues. 

Signs of systemic discrimination

Not all discrimination is casual or on a one-on-one basis. Systematic discrimination or institutionalised discrimination is the ongoing policies, systems or practices that actively discriminate against someone on the basis of a protected characteristic. has a useful guide on what constitutes systematic discrimination in the workplace.

In policies and procedures 

Your workplace could be displaying systematic discrimination if they fail to have policies that don’t allow for reasonable adjustments to be made for disabled people.

Another example could be policies that offer benefits to married employees, over those in a civil partnership, or cohabiting couples.

Other examples could be failing to make adjustments to the workplace or working practices of neurodivergent colleagues or blind staff members.

Recruitment and promotion 

A policy that excludes certain people for a role because of their age, gender, sexuality or race for instance is an example of systematic discrimination. The same is true if someone is refused promotion because of a protected characteristic.

Workplace culture and environment

A workplace culture might ban the cooking of certain foods in a shared kitchen. For example, banning people from another culture eating fish at lunch, this could be systematic discrimination.

Real life examples of workplace discrimination

We’ve presented plenty of examples of discrimination, but hearing real world examples can really help you recognise discrimination in your workplace.

  • Starbucks Dyslexia case – a Starbuck’s employee Meseret Kumulchew was accused of falsifying documents by their employer. As a result, they had duties taken away and were forced to retrain. Meseret took Starbucks to court, the court found that their employer failed to make reasonable adjustments for dyslexia

  • ONS sex discrimination case – Macroeconomics specialist Olwen Renowden was refused a new position at the company at the US grade 6 level. She subsequently lost her job, taking an appeal to the Employment Tribunal. ONS were found to have shown favouritism to male staff

What to do if you see signs of discrimination

If you see signs of discrimination in your work, or you feel you are being discriminated against you should call it out. This can be scary, but you could:

  • Complain to the discriminatory person, or your workplace;

  • Ask an independent mediator to step in;

  • Take your claim to employment tribunal or court.

Victim can be a triggering word, but we’re using it in the legal sense. You, or someone discriminated against should never feel helpless, or that you can’t do anything about your issue.

There are legal processes you can put into action that will protect you from retaliation or being victimised for whistleblowing.

  • Discrimination claim – the Equality Act 2010 says you should not be discriminated against, if you feel you are or have been you can file a discrimination claim in the civil courts, the procedure to do so is described by Citizens Advice

  • Sue for compensation – you could sue your workplace for compensation if you’ve missed out on financial rewards. See Citizens Advice

  • Calling it out – report it to your workplace 

  • Asking for help – ask for help from friends, family and colleagues, or seek legal support from an employment solicitor or lawyer.

How can employers stop discrimination in the workplace

As an employer, stopping discrimination should be equally important to you as reaching your financial targets. If you sincerely want to address discrimination, we’ve listed some good starting points:

  • Review policies and procedures 

  • Conduct equality training 

  • Raise awareness

Need support from a discrimination at work expert?

If you feel you are being treated unfairly or discriminated against at work, the first step would be to speak to your employer, who should take steps to listen to your concerns and address them

However, if this doesn’t change anything, or if things get worse, it’s probably time to seek legal help from a specialist employment law solicitor.

At Lawhive, we can help you make a discrimination claim against your employer and support you through the whole process. Get a free case assessment from our expert legal assessment team today to find out if you have a case and get a fixed-fee quote for the services of our dedicated solicitors.

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