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Discrimination – What it is, and Important Facts You Should Know

Discrimination occurs when someone receives less favourable treatment, in the same or similar circumstances, because of one or more of the grounds prescribed as unlawful under Australian Federal, State and Territory legislation. Avoid discriminating against others, and know how to respond if someone discriminates against you

Types of discrimination

Discrimination happens in many ways. Here are some that people often encounter at work, with an example of each.

  • Gender. For example, a manager refuses to give someone a promotion she deserves because she is female.
  • Sexual preference. For example, a group of male workers humiliate a homosexual colleague by frequently making derogatory remarks about gays and lesbians in his presence.
  • Age. For example, an office manager replaces a capable 55-year old receptionist with an inexperienced 20-year old.
  • Ethnicity. For example, a manager tells two employees not to converse in their own language.
  • Disability. For example, an employer refuses to install “screen reader” software for an office worker who has developed a problem with her eyesight that makes reading a computer screen difficult.
  • Marital status. For example, a company invites husbands and wives of sales executives to the annual conference but excludes de facto partners.

When discrimination is legal

Federal and State laws allow exceptions that make discrimination legal in some circumstances. In broad terms, these exceptions generally relate to workplace safety or practical issues such as the physical ability to perform a job. The following are two typical examples.
  • Requiring employees to speak English. An example of when this is acceptable is when workplace safety depends on everyone being able to understand each other.
  • Avoiding disabled workers. An example of when this is acceptable is when a job requires specific physical abilities to complete the job requirements, e.g. heavy lifting or carrying.

How discrimination affects people at work

We should all be aware of the harm that discrimination can cause. It affects people in many ways, including lower rates of pay, unfair performance appraisals, denial of training or promotion opportunities, unemployment, loss of dignity and high levels of stress.

Your employer’s responsibilities

Your employer is responsible for ensuring a discrimination-free workplace and may be legally responsible for any discrimination that occurs at work, or in connection with work.

Your employer may also be responsible for the actions of contractors, agents and other external parties as well as direct employees.

To avoid liability, your employer must prove they did everything possible, within reason, to prevent discrimination from happening.

You can be held responsible for discrimination

As an individual worker, you can be held personally responsible for acts of discrimination. Depending on the circumstances, the law may say you share the responsibility with other workers or your employer. You may also be held responsible for discrimination as an accessory if you let it happen to others.

What to do if you are discriminated against

If possible, your first action as someone being discriminated against should be talk to the other person, or people, about what they are doing. Explain how it is affecting you and ask them to stop.

If this is unsuccessful or you feel uncomfortable about doing it, talk to your manager or your company’s human resources department. You may need to put the complaint in writing and follow a formal complaint process for serious instances of discrimination.

You should also keep a written record of the details of every incident so that you can substantiate your claim.

If unable to reach a satisfactory resolution of your complaint within your company, your next step is to contact the relevant government body agency in your state or territory, or the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Further reading

Visit our Careers Advice section for related articles.

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