What is Associative Discrimination?

emily gordon brown
Emily Gordon BrownLegal Assessment Specialist @ Lawhive
Updated on 1st November 2023

Discrimination at work is still a widespread problem that leaves employees vulnerable to bias and prejudice. To foster equality and fairness, we must address all forms of discrimination, including the less commonly understood ones, with empathy and clarity.


In this blog post, we will explore 

  • the concept of associative discrimination, 

  • its impact on workplace vulnerability, 

  • the steps employers should take to safeguard their employees from associative discrimination.

What is associative discrimination?

Associative discrimination, also called discrimination by association, happens when someone is mistreated based on another person's protected characteristic. This can involve friends, spouses, partners, parents, or anyone they associate with.

For instance, if an employee encounters some form of discrimination in the workplace because of their association with a person of a particular race or religion. This would be regarded as associative discrimination.

It is worth noting that associative discrimination does not extend to all protected characteristics. The legislation specifically excludes marriage and civil partnerships, as well as pregnancy and maternity.

Examples of discrimination by association

Here are some examples of discrimination by association: 


Age discrimination happens when an older employee is not given a promotion simply because it is assumed they will retire soon, perhaps due to their spouse recently retiring.


An employer might decide against hiring a job applicant if they assume that the applicant will require frequent time off to care for their partner who has a disability.

Gender reassignment

Discrimination in the workplace can happen when a transgender person is mistreated just because their partner is also transgender.

Marriage and civil partnership

An employee might go through the unfortunate ordeal of facing harassment because of their same-sex marriage. This could include offensive comments from coworkers about their spouse, for instance.

Pregnancy and maternity

Concerns about an employee's husband taking paternity leave and its potential impact on her role could lead to a woman being denied a job opportunity.


Discrimination against an employee may arise because their spouse is from a different racial or ethnic background, resulting in derogatory remarks from coworkers.

Religion or belief

Negative treatment towards an employee may occur due to their partner practising a different religion, leading to coworkers mocking their beliefs, for example.


Sometimes, a man might be overlooked for a promotion because the employer assumes he'll need time off for childcare simply because his wife recently had a baby.

Sexual orientation

In some instances, individuals in same-sex relationships may sadly find themselves facing harassment at work. This could involve coworkers making hurtful and offensive remarks about their partner, which is just one example of the challenges they may encounter.

What claims can employees bring for associative discrimination?

If employees believe they have experienced associative discrimination, they have various options to consider under the anti-discrimination laws in their area. These options typically include:

Indirect discrimination

This type of claim comes up when an employer's policies or practices indirectly discriminate against an employee because of their connection with someone who has a protected characteristic.


If an employee has to deal with offensive comments, jokes, or other unwelcome conduct solely because of their connection with someone who possesses a protected characteristic, then that's clearly unacceptable. In such a situation, they may have a legitimate workplace harassment claim against their employer. No one should have to tolerate such mistreatment, and it's essential to be aware of the potential recourse available in such cases.


This occurs when an employee is mistreated solely due to their association with someone who has a protected characteristic. It's basically being treated unjustly because of the people you associate with.

Failure to make reasonable adjustments

When it comes to disability, employees might have a valid claim if their employer fails to make reasonable accommodations for their connection to someone with a disability. For example, let's say your employer declines to offer flexible working hours to help you manage your caregiving responsibilities for your disabled child. That's just not fair, is it?


If you're facing adverse treatment for speaking out or supporting a complaint about associative discrimination, you may be experiencing workplace victimisation. But don't worry; there are anti-discrimination laws in place to protect employees like you from such mistreatment.

Please note that seeking legal advice from an employment solicitor is advisable to gain a thorough understanding of your rights and options.

8 tips for employers to prevent claims for associative discrimination

The tips for employers to prevent claims for associative discrimination include: 

  1. Raise Awareness: Awareness is crucial. And thanks to the Equality Act, you have reference material to conduct training and awareness programs on associative discrimination to help your staff understand the concept and its implications.

  2. Anti-Discrimination Policies: Having comprehensive anti-discrimination policies in place is also important. These policies should directly address associative discrimination, making it clear it is unacceptable. Employees need to know where to find these policies and understand the consequences of violating them.

  3. Diversity Training: Regular diversity and inclusion training should be an integral part of your organisation's culture. Such training emphasises the importance of equal treatment and challenges stereotypes and biases that may lead to discriminatory behaviour.

  4. Reasonable Adjustments: It is crucial to accommodate employees with caregiving responsibilities. Consider reasonable adjustments such as flexible working hours, part-time options, or remote work to ensure that no employee is disadvantaged due to their caregiving role.

  5. Review Policies: Periodically reviewing your workplace policies is vital. Identify areas where associative discrimination might occur, such as recruitment, promotions, or performance evaluations. Make necessary amendments to prevent these issues.

  6. Promote Inclusivity: Inclusivity should be a core value in your organisation. By fostering an inclusive culture, you demonstrate that discriminatory behaviour is not tolerated, creating a safe and valued environment for employees.

  7. Reporting Mechanisms: Having effective reporting mechanisms in place is critical. Encourage employees to use these channels to report any incidents of discrimination, including associative discrimination. Ensure that the reporting process is confidential and that there are no repercussions for whistleblowers.

  8. Legal Compliance: Staying informed and compliant with anti-discrimination laws and regulations is essential. Employment laws can change, and it is crucial to keep your policies aligned with the latest legal requirements to avoid potential litigation.

Associative discrimination can be a real challenge when it comes to employment. Employers and employees alike need to understand the potential risks involved in discriminating against anyone due to protected characteristics. 

Ultimately, by having open conversations about associative discrimination in the workplace, we can work together to ensure all employees have rights to feel safe, secure, and appreciated, free from any kind of discrimination or hatred.

If you need help with associative discrimination at work, either as an employer or an employee, please contact us to get specialist advice from an employment solicitor. 

Our solicitors work for fixed fees in order to provide quick, affordable legal advice relating to employment issues, and we can find a solicitor for your matter in as little as 5 minutes.

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