Treating certain people unfairly is one of the best ways to ruin your company's culture. It can make working life miserable and bring down productivity and morale.

Discriminatory behaviour isn't always easy to spot. It can take the form of explicitly harmful remarks against someone, or it can be a more insidious phenomenon that takes a while to identify. And sometimes, false accusations of discrimination can be just as harmful as perpetrating it.

So it's pretty important to know what it is and how to spot it, so you can make sure your company is equitable, peaceful and welcoming.

Here's a short guide to what discrimination in the workplace actually is and how you can deal with it in your company, whether you're a manager or an employee.

What is discrimination in the workplace?

Discrimination is simply the unfair treatment of somebody because of who they are or a particular characteristic that they're thought to have.

In the context of wider society, you can say that particular groups might be discriminated against. It's the "act of making unjustified distinctions between human beings based on the groups, classes, or other categories to which they are perceived to belong."

Workplace discrimination can involve negative treatment towards groups of people, where systemic issues prevent them from gaining certain job positions, for example. But many identified instances of discrimination are on the individual level.

Whatever the case, you really don't want it happening within your business. It's important for both employees and companies to be able to prevent, identify and deal with discrimination issues, for moral, financial and legal reasons.

What are some examples of workplace discrimination?

The UK equality act has nine 'protected characteristics' - they're the things you're not allowed to discriminate against somebody for. They are:

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

A case of discrimination could involve a variety of different behaviours.

Incivility and harassment based on a certain characteristic would count as discrimination. This might go all the way from an inappropriate joke to a campaign of bullying.

Assigning office seat layouts so that a certain type of person has to be in a certain area would be a type of discrimination. Not making certain job positions available to those with disabilities could be classed as discrimination.

Maternity and pregnancy discrimination is highlighted in the Equality Act. If someone's being treated badly due to being pregnant or a new parent, that's discrimination. For example, they might be passed over for a certain job because they're expecting to take maternity leave at some point in the near future.

Victimisation is where someone is treated badly because they've complained of being discriminated against in the past. According to KLG Law, "Employers are obliged to take reasonable steps to protect their employees where they have previously claimed to have suffered from discrimination. If they fail to do so, they may be vulnerable to legal action."

What is indirect discrimination?

This is a phrase that occasionally comes up in these discussions but isn't so commonly understood.

Indirect discrimination is when someone treats their employee in the same way they treat someone else, but this gives them a disadvantage because of who they are. So it could be a policy that applies to everyone but has a worse effect on some people than others.

For example, mandating that everyone in your company works one Saturday a month could be seen as discriminatory against those that have childcare commitments on that day, or those that hold Saturdays as a holy day due to their religion.

What to do if you are being discriminated against at work

Firstly, make sure it is definitely a case of discrimination. You might be treated unfairly - and this happens to many of us at work - but discrimination is when that unfair treatment is because you belong to a particular group.

Dealing with it can be difficult. As a victim, it's the kind of thing you might experience and keep to yourself, or tell your friends and family about, or anonymously blog about. You might also complain to your manager or HR representative, or even consult a union.  In some cases, it might have been accidental or not thought to be as serious as it really is.

In some cases, you can and should take legal action. You'll need to be specific about the way in which you think your treatment is based on your protected characteristic. The Citizens Advice Bureau has a good resource on preparing a legal claim for discrimination.

If you're not sure what your next steps should be, you can contact the Equality Advisory Support Service discrimination helpline. It's a good place to start if you think you've experienced discrimination.