Direct and indirect discrimination explained (with examples)

Joe Caccavale






min read


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What is direct discrimination?

Direct discrimination is when someone is treated differently (usually worse) because of a protected characteristic.

The nine protected characteristics under The Equality Act (2010) are as follows:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion and belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

You don’t necessarily have to be able to identify someone being treated better to prove direct discrimination. However, you would have to prove that they would’ve been treated better in a similar situation.

Also, not all victims of direct discrimination actually have one of the protected characteristics above.

You can be subject to direct discrimination if someone thinks you have one of these characteristics (e.g. they may incorrectly assume your sexual orientation or religious beliefs) or simply by being associated with/ connected to someone with one of the protected characteristics above.

Direct discrimination example

If a pregnant employee comes under scrutiny due to absence caused by morning sickness, this would be direct discrimination due to pregnancy and maternity.

If an employee informed their manager/ boss that they’re going to be undertaking gender reassignment surgery and were moved to a non-client facing role as a result, this would be direct discrimination on the grounds of gender reassignment.

If an employee were to be disciplined or criticised for taking time off to care for a disabled child, this would be classified as discrimination by association. Although the employee doesn’t have a protected characteristic, they’re still a victim of direct discrimination since their child has a protected characteristic. 

What is indirect discrimination?

Indirect discrimination is when a policy that applies equally to everyone results in people with a protected characteristic being disadvantaged.

Indirect discrimination is not usually intentional, but more a likely to be the result of an oversight on behalf of whoever created the policy.

To prove a case of indirect discrimination, there must be a policy which applies to everyone, whilst disadvantaging those from a particular group with a protected characteristic (when compared to those not in this group).

You’d also have to prove that the policy in question had caused a degree of disadvantage and that the policy was not justified given the disadvantage caused.

Indirect discrimination examples

If an employer makes it mandatory for employees to work a given number of Saturdays per month, this would be indirect discrimination on the grounds of religion - since Saturday is a religious day in Judaism (putting Jewish workers at a disadvantage).

If an organisation has a policy banning certain hairstyles (braids and dreadlocks, for example) then this would be classed as indirect discrimination based on race. Whilst some employees would not be affected at all, black employees would be at a disadvantage since they’d now be unable to wear their usual hairstyle.

If an employer requires all employees to work full-time, this could be a case of indirect discrimination. This is because a policy like this will likely disadvantage women more than men, given that they’re more likely to be caring for young children (especially in the first few months after giving birth).

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