Reporting discrimination at work: what crosses the line?

Friday 30 August 2019
You may have been in uncomfortable exchanges that leave you wondering if it’s discrimination or just banter gone wrong – but when should you inform your manager?
Open road

According to the 2010 Equality Act, all employees have a legal right to be treated equally regardless of their age, gender, race, sexuality, disability or beliefs. One vital issue that any manager needs to prevent is discrimination in the workplace – but, unless you’re closely acquainted with government legislation, the whole issue can be opaque.

“If you’re being treated differently because of part of your identity, the first step is to flag the issue to your employer so they can take steps to address it,” explains Liz Johnson, a gold-medal Paralympian and founder of The Ability People. “Your company should have an official complaints procedure and the next step would be to use this channel to file a complaint.” Any infringements of the Equality Act should be reported so they can be tackled. But how do you know when something warrants a formal discussion – or what if it’s not you personally being singled out? We go through some examples and actions below.


This type of discrimination can arrive in many forms: an employer being unwilling to accommodate your physical needs for interviews, meetings, or toilet access; inaccessible desks due to wheelchair or mobility aid use; you’re assigned purposefully challenging tasks; repeatedly organising meetings with no translator for deaf people; or excluding such persons from social activities or project responsibilities.

“If you don't have experience of disability, or another characteristic which faces discrimination, then you might not be aware of the number of barriers and harmful prejudices people in these groups experience,” Liz Johnson says. Simple things, such as placing tea and coffee supplies in lower cabinets, moving desks to allow wider access for mobility aids, and providing deaf people with notes to follow the meeting are big steps towards creating a more inclusive workplace.

It is equally important that managers do not discriminate against those with neurodiverse conditions – such as dyspraxia, dyslexia, autism or ADHD. Offer these team members the chance to explain what it means to how they work or behave, or talk through it privately and then provide team-wide training. It may be the case that because the other employees have no experience of interacting with someone with this disability they simply do not know how to – which can lead to exclusion. Hold a calm and inclusive discussion to dispel any misconceptions. You may need to make adjustments to their working environment, such as allowing them more time to complete tasks, regular check-in points, and flexibility to working from home.

See how you can make changes in the workplace to support disabled workers and aid their progression through the ranks.


Gender-based discrimination is so commonplace that it’s even got its own subcategory of ‘everyday sexism’. These instances can range from ignoring or belittling someone’s contributions, making sexist jokes, or assigning tasks based on gender stereotypes. Colette McKune, Group Chief Executive at ForViva recalls: “Prior to moving into my current role, there were many times when I have faced discrimination and inequality. During my time working in construction I’d often be the only woman in a meeting of 20 men. I’d walk into meetings with contractors and they’d automatically assume I was the PA. It was great to be able to point out it was actually me in charge of a multi-million-pound contract they were bidding for.”

If a colleague is singled-out because of their gender, it’s important to speak up. If someone is purposefully spoken over or ignored in a meeting, you can make a point of letting this person fi nish talking as you’re interested in their point. You could also approach this colleague privately to give them your support. If you feel that you’re being victimised, and feel able to approach the colleague in question, explain to them why their behaviour is inappropriate. They may not have fully understood that their actions have crossed the line – if you don’t feel comfortable doing this, bring a record of conversations, interactions, and any written communication that made you feel singled out to your manager to discuss.

In many organisations, female managers continue to experience sexism in their workplace. Read more about how you can help to fix the problem through our Broken Windows campaign.


Examples of racial discrimination range from being overlooked for opportunities, promotions, and responsibilities to derogatory remarks or exclusion from social activities. Sometimes, this can stem from not knowing where to draw the line, but it can stem from a malicious root. Mocking accents, names, skin colour or clothing can be regarded by some as playful banter – but if it’s making someone feel uncomfortable or isolated, it needs to stop. Each workplace, no matter its size, should have an equal opportunities policy in place. If you feel you are being discriminated because of your ethnicity, or you have witnessed such behaviour, revisit this document and write down instances that have gone against the company’s policy. Approach your manager or HR department with this document, alongside any other supporting evidence.

Each report should be taken seriously, so if you’ve been in, or witnessed, a situation that’s left you wondering whether it’s crossed the line into discrimation, talk to your line manager. Together, you can decide the next steps – it may be that your manager chooses to talk to the person in question directly, or that HR follow their own procedures to investigate. If you do not have an HR department, then approach a trusted colleague, manager, or Union representative – should these steps not resolve the conflict, get in touch with ACAS to submit an Early Conciliation Notification form and get in touch with Citizens Advice.

Read CMI’s guide for five ways you can stop workplace racism today.

Learn more about unconscious bias in our September webinar. Register here.

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