Treated Unfairly At Work: What Are Your Rights?


What should you do if you are being treated unfairly at work?

In most cases, employees will be expected to try to resolve issues informally with their employer first. But what does this mean, and what are your rights and legal options if you want to make a complaint about unfair treatment in the workplace?


What is unfair treatment at work?


There are a number of different types of unfair treatment that an employee may experience at work including bullying, discrimination, harassment and victimisation.



There is no statutory definition of bullying, but essentially it refers to unwanted behaviour from a person or group of people at work that leaves you feeling offended, intimidated, undermined, humiliated or degraded. Examples of bullying in the workplace include where:

  • someone has spread false rumours about you
  • someone keeps criticising or talking down to you
  • you are being constantly ridiculed or teased
  • you are given heavier workloads than everyone else
  • you are made to work to unreasonable demands and deadlines
  • you are not allowed to go on training courses but others are
  • you are excluded from emails, meetings, team activities and/or social events

The bullying might be a regular pattern of behaviour or a one-off incident. It can take place face-to-face, on social media, in emails or phone calls. It can also occur both during working hours at your place of work, or outside office hours at a work’s social event. It is important to remember that this behaviour may not be obvious or even noticed by others.



Discrimination can be either direct or indirect. Direct discrimination is when someone is treated less favourably at work than others because they possess a protected characteristic. There are nine protected characteristics set out under the Equality Act 2010 including age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation.

Direct discrimination can also arise where someone is perceived to have a protected characteristic (discrimination by perception), or even because they are associated with someone who has a protected characteristic (discrimination by association). An example of direct discrimination could be where you are deliberately excluded from a work’s social event because you are gay, or thought to be gay. It could also include where you are excluded from an event because your partner, ie; someone you associate with, is gay.

In contrast, indirect discrimination is more subtle. This is where there is a policy, rule or procedure in place at work that applies equally to everyone, but puts someone who possesses a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage when compared with others. This means that the unfair treatment might not be aimed at you personally, but where a particular rule or policy for everyone affects you worse than others.

An example of indirect discrimination is where your employer requires everyone to work full-time but because of your childcare commitments as a women, this adversely affects you. There may be some cases where indirect discrimination can be objectively justified, ie; where the these is a good business reason for this, although these scenarios are fairly limited.



Harassment is both a form of bullying and discrimination combined. Under the 2010 Act, a person will be classed as harassing another person if they engage in unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, and that conduct has ‘the purpose or effect of violating the other person’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person’.

The statutory definition of harassment also extends to two other types of unwanted conduct, namely conduct of a sexual nature, where this has the same purpose or effect as set out above, or where an employee is treated less favourably because of either rejecting or submitting to unwanted sexual behaviour or behaviour related to gender reassignment or sex. However, the law on harassment does not cover marriage and civil partnership.

As with discrimination, the law on harassment can apply to anyone who is thought to possess a protected characteristic, even if this is not the case, or because they are associated with someone with a protected characteristic. The unwanted conduct also need not be directly aimed at the complainant, but can be behaviour witnessed by someone at work, so long as that conduct has still had the effect of creating an unpleasant environment.

An example of harassment could be where you are being teased or ridiculed at work because you are transgender, or thought to be transgender. This includes conduct that is only intended as harmless fun or friendly banter, but the effect of that behaviour makes you feel humiliated. It could also include where you witness someone else being treated in this way.



Victimisation is again a form of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, and refers to when someone is being treated unfairly at work because they have complained about discrimination or harassment, or supported a complaint made by someone else.

An example of victimisation could be where a co-worker makes a sexual harassment claim against your line manager, and after you give evidence as a witness to support their claim, that manager denies you a promotion and starts treating you unfairly in other ways.


Unfair treatment at work: employee rights


The nature of your employment rights if you are being treated unfairly at work will much depend on the unfair treatment complained about. As such, if you feel you are being treated unfairly by either your employer or co-worker(s), it is important to understand what type of treatment you are actually experiencing within the workplace.

In some cases, the unfair treatment may be classed as unlawful. Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to directly or indirectly discriminate against an employee by reason of any one of the nine protected characteristics. It is also unlawful to harass or victimise a person.

Bullying at work, however, is not in itself a legally actionable claim. That said, where the unwanted conduct amounts to harassment under the 2010 Act, ie; because it relates to a protected characteristic, this will still be classed as unlawful. Unwanted conduct in the form of bullying in its’ wider sense, may also give rise to a right to claim for constructive dismissal.

Constructive dismissal is where an employer has committed a serious breach of contract in response to which an employee is justified in treating themselves as having been unfairly dismissed. However, to prove constructive dismissal, you must show there was a breach sufficiently serious to justify your resignation.

These can be difficult claims to prove, especially where the employer is not directly responsible for any bullying. Here, you would need to demonstrate that your employer failed to take all reasonable steps to prevent the unwanted conduct complained of, such that this resulted in a breach of any grievance procedure or a fundamental breach of trust.

Put another way, you would need to show that your employer has either failed to address any unfair treatment, or the way in which they have handled any complaint has made your position at work wholly untenable making it impossible for you to continue working for them. As such, it is always best to explore all alternative options before resigning from your job.


What steps should I take when treated unfairly at work?


If you have a workplace complaint, depending on the seriousness of the matter and the nature of the complaint, you should in most cases try to first raise the issue informally, for example, by way of a chat with your line manager. Where the complaint is relatively minor, the matter may be easily resolved without formal action being required. It is not uncommon, for example, for people to be unaware of the impact of their behaviour, and an informal, open discussion may lead to a greater understanding and an agreement that the behaviour will cease.

However, if an informal approach doesn’t resolve the matter, or the complaint is especially serious, you should follow your organisation’s formal grievance procedure by raising a formal grievance in writing.

Even where there is no formal policy in place for the unfair treatment complained about, your employer has a legal duty of care to protect you while you are at work. This includes dealing with issues of bullying.

It is important to set out in writing the nature of your complaint so that your employer can fully investigate the matter. It is also worth noting that although you are not legally required to raise a formal grievance before making a claim to an employment tribunal, any failure to do so may be construed as unreasonable, resulting in the tribunal reducing any award of damages.

Many employers will have in place a written grievance procedure for you to follow. This can usually be found in either a staff handbook or on the staff intranet site. If you are unable to locate any procedure, you should make inquiries with your line manager or employer.

In the absence of any written procedure, your employer should still adhere to the best practice guidance set out under the ACAS Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures at work. This requires all employers, regardless of size, to fully and fairly investigate any complaints of unfair treatment and, to communicate the findings and decision in a grievance hearing, which may include taking disciplinary action against those responsible.

If you are unhappy with the outcome of any grievance procedure, under the ACAS Code of Practice you will be entitled to appeal this decision. You may also have a claim for unlawful discrimination, or even constructive dismissal if you still decide to resign.


Can I claim compensation for unfair treatment at work?


Even if you lodge a formal written grievance and your employer seeks to address the unfair treatment, or otherwise attempts to make amends, this does not necessarily remove any right to compensation or cure any breach. You may still have a valid claim.

Where a claim for unlawful discrimination is successful, there is no limit on the potential compensation that can be awarded. The tribunal will take into account any financial loss suffered because of the discrimination. You may also be entitled to an award for injury to feelings, regardless of whether or not you have suffered any direct financial loss.

If you have been unfairly dismissed from your job, or felt forced to resign in consequence of any unfair treatment at work, the compensation for a successful claim will also include any loss of earnings, as well as a sum to reflect your loss of statutory rights.


Do I have to resign first to claim compensation?


To claim compensation for unlawful discrimination you do not have to resign first. You will also be eligible to claim compensation regardless of how long you have worked for your employer. There is no qualifying period of service here.

In contrast, to be able to claim for constructive dismissal, you must have resigned from your job, and in response to any alleged breach by your employer rather than for some other reason. You will also only be eligible to claim constructive dismissal if you have worked for the same employer continuously for a period of two years.

In circumstances where you are contemplating resigning from your job, it is always best to seek expert legal advice. Claims for constructive dismissal are especially difficult to prove, where the timing of your resignation or the way in which you resign, can impact the outcome of any claim, resulting in the loss of your job with little prospect of compensation.


Unfair treatment at work FAQs


What is unfair treatment?

There are a number of different types of unfair treatment that someone can experience at work. This can include bullying, discrimination, harassment or victimisation. In some cases, the unfair treatment may be classed as unlawful, and for which you may be entitled to claim compensation before an employment tribunal.


How do you deal with being treated unfairly at work?

How you deal with being treated unfairly at work will depend on the nature and severity of your complaint. In some cases, the matter may be able to be resolved informally by reporting the unfair treatment verbally to your line manager. In other more serious cases, you may need to lodge a formal grievance in writing so that the issues can be fully investigated.


Can you sue your employer for unfair treatment?

If you have been treated unfairly at work, you may be able to sue your employer, even if they are not directly responsible for the behaviour companied about but they do nothing about it. The law protects you from discrimination, harassment and victimisation at work, where your employer is required to take reasonable steps to prevent any unfair treatment by co-workers.


What should you do when your boss is treating you unfairly?

If your boss is treating you unfairly, you may first want to see if the matter can be resolved informally, by way of a verbal discussion. If the matter cannot be resolved in this way, you should lodge a formal grievance in writing. In serious cases, legal advice should be sought.



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Anne Morris is the founder and Managing Director of DavidsonMorris. A highly experienced lawyer, she is recognised by Chambers & Partners and the Legal 500 UK as a trusted adviser to multinationals, large corporates and SMEs, delivering strategic immigration and global mobility advice. Anne is also an active commentator on UK immigration and HR matters.

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