Employee Experience

Direct vs. Indirect workplace discrimination

4 Mins read

Workplace discrimination remains a widespread concern with global implications. It takes various forms, some of which are subtle and elusive, while others are blatant and conspicuous. In this context, it’s crucial to grasp the distinctions between direct and indirect discrimination in the workplace. Each type carries distinct legal implications and consequences. Therefore, it’s vital for both employees and employers to differentiate between these two forms and their impact.

Direct vs. Indirect Discrimination: Understanding and Examples

Both direct and indirect discrimination are prohibited under the law, with established policies to support those affected by them. The primary distinction between these forms of discrimination lies in their visibility. Direct discrimination is readily apparent, while indirect discrimination operates more discreetly and can easily slip under the radar.

In the following sections, we’ll delve into both types of workplace discrimination, providing comprehensive explanations and real-life examples.

Direct Discrimination: A Closer Look

Direct discrimination occurs when an employer treats an individual unfairly solely due to their protected characteristics. These protected attributes encompass factors such as gender, nationality, race, age, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, pregnancy, and more.

It’s important to note that employees without these protected attributes do not experience this unequal treatment, confirming a clear case of direct discrimination in the workplace. However, it’s worth acknowledging that direct discrimination isn’t always overt and can be challenging to substantiate due to its subtle manifestations. Even when discrimination is targeted at a group of employees, it need not be glaringly obvious to qualify as direct discrimination.

Examples of Direct Discrimination

Direct Discrimination on the Basis of Age or Age Discrimination

Imagine a scenario where a seasoned employee, who has consistently performed well, is suddenly passed over for promotion because the employer believes that a younger colleague would be a better fit. This unfavorable treatment based on age qualifies as direct age discrimination.

Direct Discrimination on the Basis of Religion or Religious Discrimination

An employer imposes a strict dress code that forbids the wearing of religious attire or symbols, such as turbans, hijabs, or yarmulkes. This constitutes a deliberate policy to discriminate against employees based on their religious beliefs, which is illegal and regarded as workplace discrimination.

Direct Discrimination on the Basis of Disability or Disability Discrimination

Suppose an employee with a disability is denied reasonable accommodations, such as a flexible work schedule, even though such accommodations would enable them to perform their job effectively. This unjust treatment based on an employee’s disability status is considered direct disability discrimination.

Direct Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation or LGBTQ+ Discrimination

An employer refuses to extend spousal benefits to an employee in a same-sex marriage while providing them to heterosexual couples. This action discriminates against the employee based on their sexual orientation and is a clear case of direct LGBTQ+ discrimination.

direct vs indirect discrimination 2

Indirect Discrimination: A Closer Look

Indirect discrimination, unlike its intentional counterpart, stems from policies or practices that may seem neutral but, in reality, put individuals with certain protected characteristics at a disadvantage. This kind of discrimination typically arises from long-standing policies that haven’t been adapted to accommodate all employees.

Here’s a practical illustration: Imagine a company mandates all employees to work full-time, which might disproportionately affect women due to their often greater caregiving responsibilities. Similarly, a policy that necessitates working on Saturdays might inadvertently discriminate against those who observe the Sabbath on a different day.

The legal implications of indirect discrimination are weighty. Employers found culpable of this form of discrimination could be required to compensate affected employees. Furthermore, they may need to overhaul their policies and practices to actively prevent future discrimination. This is a vital aspect to grasp, as it highlights the substantial impact of indirect discrimination in the workplace.

Examples of Indirect Discrimination

Indirect Disability Discrimination

A company implements a policy requiring all employees to work late hours regularly. This policy unintentionally disadvantages employees with disabilities who require special transportation arrangements, making it a case of indirect disability discrimination.

Indirect Age Discrimination

An employer enforces a mandatory retirement age for its employees. This practice indirectly discriminates against older workers who wish to continue working and are capable of doing so.

Indirect National Origin Discrimination

A company introduces a stringent English-only language policy in the workplace, which affects employees who speak multiple languages but primarily communicate in their native language. This policy indirectly discriminates against individuals of various national origins.

Indirect Religious Discrimination

An employer schedules team-building events on Fridays, which coincides with the holy day of a Muslim employee who observes Jumu’ah (Friday prayers). This practice indirectly discriminates against the employee’s religious beliefs.

Why It’s Important to Understand the Difference

When you’re dealing with a workplace issue, it’s useful to recognize the distinction between different types of discrimination. Each type involves specific circumstances and impact. Understanding these differences can help you address your concerns effectively. For instance, if you believe you’ve been treated unfairly at work, you should determine whether it constitutes a clear, direct case of discrimination or a more subtle form, such as indirect discrimination. Knowing the nature of the issue can guide your approach to finding a resolution.

Furthermore, it’s important for managers to grasp these distinctions because they play a crucial role in fostering a fair and inclusive work environment. Managers who understand these nuances can better address and prevent discrimination, ensuring a more harmonious and productive workplace.

Direct and indirect workplace discrimination: What managers can do

Managers play a pivotal role in addressing and preventing both direct and indirect cases of discrimination in the workplace. When faced with instances of direct discrimination, it’s essential for managers to respond swiftly and decisively. This involves investigating the situation, listening to the affected parties, and taking appropriate action, such as implementing anti-discrimination policies, conducting sensitivity training, or issuing disciplinary measures as necessary. Moreover, in cases of indirect discrimination, managers should proactively review company policies and practices to ensure they are fair and inclusive.

They must be receptive to feedback from employees, as well as vigilant in identifying potential disparities that may inadvertently disadvantage certain groups. Managers can create a work environment where they actively discourage discrimination and foster the thriving of employees of all backgrounds by fostering a culture of equality and inclusivity. This proactive approach not only safeguards the rights and well-being of the workforce but also contributes to a more productive and harmonious workplace.


In summary, understanding the distinctions between direct and indirect workplace discrimination is essential for all involved. Managers, in particular, have a crucial role to play in addressing and preventing discrimination. They should act promptly in cases of direct discrimination, implementing necessary measures and policies, and proactively review company practices to ensure inclusivity in instances of indirect discrimination. This approach fosters an equitable and harmonious workplace, benefiting both employees and the organization.

Further Reading

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About author
Fatjona Gërguri is the content writer for Employee Experience Magazine, covering the relevant topics about employee experience, organizational culture and general HR topics.
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