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Discrimination: What does it mean and how do I know if it has happened to me?

In 2018, 25% of the formal Service complaints accepted for investigation were about bullying, harassment and discrimination. Although they are terms that people are familiar with, a lot of people don’t know what they actually mean. Discrimination, in particular, is something that people can be confused about.

What is discrimination?

Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to discriminate against anyone who has one of the following 9 protected characteristics :

  1. Age
  2. Disability
  3. Gender reassignment
  4. Marriage and civil partnership
  5. Pregnancy and maternity
  6. Race
  7. Religion or belief
  8. Sex
  9. Sexual orientation

While discrimination is usually about the prejudicial treatment of one person by another because of that person’s protected characteristic it can also be discrimination when someone is treated prejudicially because:

  • They associate with someone with a protected characteristic, or
  • A false assumption is made that the individual has a protected characteristic

What does discrimination look like?

There are different types of discrimination, so it won’t always look the same or even be easy to spot.  Here are a few examples to help illustrate some types of discrimination:

  • Direct discrimination: This is the most straightforward type of discrimination. It means that someone is treated less favourably because they have one of the protected characteristics. E.g. A person is not employed because of their race or sexual orientation.
  • Indirect discrimination: This is when someone is treated exactly the same as everyone else, but because they have a protected characteristic they are actually put at a disadvantage by that equal treatment. E.g. A job specification might include a height requirement, even though it has no relevance to the role. Although this is applied equally to everyone applying for those roles, it might indirectly discriminate on the basis of sex as women are, on average, shorter than men.
  • Harassment: This is where someone engages in unwanted conduct related to a person’s protected characteristic which has the purpose or effect of violating the person’s dignity or creating a hostile or humiliating environment. E.g. A person is regularly undermined in front of their peers because of their sex.
  • Victimisation: This is where someone suffers less favourable treatment because they have or are believed to have, done a protected act. An example of a protected act is bringing a claim under the Equality Act. E.g. A person brings a Service Complaint on the basis of discrimination and is then not given a promotion because of that Complaint.

Is all different or unfair treatment discrimination?

No, not all different or unfair treatment is discrimination. This might seem unfair in itself, but there are some exceptions to the law – although they are rare.

Differing treatment won’t be found to be discrimination when the organisation or service has an exemption under the Equality Act. For example, the Ministry of Defence has an exemption on the grounds of age and disability.

In other instances, the organisation or service may be able to justify the different treatment. The Equality Act 2010 sets out when and how discrimination can be justified.

If you have been treated unfairly, but it was not related to a protected characteristic – it won’t be discrimination.

How do I know if it has happened to me?

Unless someone has made it quite obvious, in either their words or actions that you are being treated differently simply because of who you are, you may not know if you have been discriminated against.

Indirect discrimination especially can be very difficult to identify.

If you think you may have been discriminated against, look at how you were treated, why you were treated that way and, what the impact of that treatment was. This is a good starting point to help you identify if you may have been discriminated against.

If I think I have been discriminated against, what can I do?

If you are a Service person and you think you have been discriminated against in your Service life, you can:

  • Speak to your Equality and Diversity Adviser about the issue
  • Engage with the relevant diversity groups
  • Raise the issue informally with the individual involved or your chain of command to try and get a clearer understanding of what has happened and what can be done to put it right
  • Make a formal Service complaint
  • Take legal action (this can be a costly route and legal representation will be at your own expense)

If you need further information about discrimination, these resources might be helpful*:

* when reading general information about discrimination – remember that the MOD has exemptions under the Equality Act and that employment law for civilians and Service personnel is different.

Edited 11th September 2019: The original version of this blog contained an incorrect statement that indicated legal action could only be taken at the conclusion of a Service complaint. Employment Tribunal (ET) claims have strict time limits and, while Service personnel need to have made a Service complaint before going to an ET, the complaint does not have to have reached a conclusion.