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Discrimination in the Workplace

Discrimination at work

Everyone has the right to a workplace that is free from discrimination and harassment.   If you are being discriminated against or harassed because of some LINK: personal characteristic (for example your race, age, gender or sexual orientation), there are things you can do to make it stop.


What is discrimination in the workplace?

What is harassment?

Is discrimination and harassment against the law?

What’s not discrimination?

What’s the difference between discrimination, harassment and bullying?

What can you do about discrimination and harassment?

People you can talk to for support

What is discrimination in the workplace?

Discrimination in the workplace happens when you are treated less favourably than others not because of some characteristic about you and not because of your ability to do the job.   For a list of characteristics that the law protects, see the section below ‘When is discrimination and harassment against the law?”


Example based on real life:  Dinesh works at a bar.  He was born in Sri Lanka.  His boss took him off the roster because she couldn’t understand him.   When he spoke to his boss about it, she said “I’m not a racist but I cannot understand you.” The court decided that this was discrimination on the basis of Dinesh’s race  and Dinesh was awarded $1,000 in compensation.

Discrimination can occur if you are:

  • Refused a job
  • fired or have your shifts cut down
  • Denied training opportunities, transfers or promotions
  • Not being paid the same as someone else doing the same job, with the same experience and qualifications
  • An employer or fellow workmate is deliberately withholding information you need to do your job
  • Excluded or isolated by workmates or your boss
  • Given an impossible task

What is harassment?

Harassment in the workplace is any unwanted behaviour that offends or humiliates you, makes work a hostile environment and is targeted at you because of a personal characteristic.

Example: Bill says his workmates call him ‘queenie’ at work and talk in a ‘camp’ tone around him because they found out he is a same sex relationship.

Example:  Sam works as a shop assistant at a clothes shop. The other workers there constantly say mean things to him because he has autism.  They regularly say things like “hey special Sam” and make other jokes about him. This is harassment based on Sam having a disability (autism) and is against the law.


Is discrimination and harassment against the law?

Yes. In New South Wales, it is usually against the law to discriminate against you or harass you because of the following personal characteristics: 

  • race, colour, nationality or social origin
  • sex, intersex status, gender identity or sexual orientation
  • age
  • medical or criminal records
  • physical, intellectual, psychiatric or mental disability
  • marital or relationship status or family or carer’s responsibilities
  • pregnancy (or potential pregnancy) or breastfeeding
  • religion
  • political opinion
  • trade union activity

If you are being sexually harassed at work, please see our separate factsheet on sexual harassment.

In some cases, it can also be discrimination or harassment if someone treats you differently or offends you at work because of someone you know or are related to who has a particular characteristic (for example, you have a brother who is gay).  If you think this has happened to you, you may also be able to make a complaint about discrimination or harassment. 

What’s not discrimination?

It’s not discrimination if you are treated different at work for reasons like having poor performance and it has nothing to do with a personal characteristic (like your race, age or gender).  Other examples where there wouldn’t be discrimination is if you don’t get a job because you don’t meet the job requirements (for example, you need to have a driver’s licence and you aren’t old enough to get one).


What’s the difference between discrimination, harassment and bullying?

As we said above, discrimination is when someone treats you differently work based on a particular personal characteristic, like being pregnant or have a disability.  For example, it would be discrimination if you don’t get a promotion just because you have a disability. 

Harassment is when someone treats you in a way that is offensive, intimidating, humiliating or threatening AND that is done because you have a particular personal characteristic, like being gay, are from another country, or having a disability. 

Bullying is when someone repeatedly victimises, humiliates, threatens or intimidates you, and their actions pose a risk to workplace health and safety.  Bullying can also be harassment if it involves targeting you because of a characteristic (like coming from another country, or having a disability).   For more information on workplace bullying and what you can do about it, see our separate factsheet on workplace bullying.

You can contact the Fair Work Info Line on 13 13 94 and they can give you more information about what your best options are. 

What can you do about discrimination and harassment?

Everyone has a right to a workplace without unlawful discrimination and harassment.  If you think you have been discriminated against, it’s a good idea to:

1. Try to talk to your employer about it.

The first step is to see if your work has any policy about discrimination and what to do about it. You can ask your HR representative for a copy.  If it does, it might have information about how to resolve the problem.  If your workplace doesn’t have a discrimination policy, you can talk to your manager or HR representative about what’s happening.

If you’re nervous about talking to your boss or HR rep, you might want to put the complaint in writing, or have a trusted friend sit in the meeting with you to support you. 

2. If you are a member of a union, you can talk to your representative about what’s going on. They may be able to get your employer to do something about the problem.

3. Make a complaint to a government agency

If your employer doesn’t properly investigate your complaint, or you think their decision is unfair, you can make a complaint to a government agency about workplace discrimination.

Depending on the type of discrimination or harassment, you may be able to make a complaint to different government offices.  It’s important to get advice about the different offices, because there are differences in the complaints process.  For example, some complaints processes can only result in an apology and mediation, but in others you may be able to sue for compensation.

There are time limits on when you can make a discrimination complaint, and these can be as short as 3 weeks.  That’s why it’s a good idea to get advice as soon as possible so that your complaint is valid.

Please contact the following organisations to find out who you should make your complaint to:

1. The Fair Work Info line on 13 13 94

2. The Australian Human Rights Commission on 1300 656 4191300 656 419 or (02) 9284 9888(02) 9284 9888 or visit their website at:  They can give you some information about the various organisations you can complain to and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

3. Anti-Discrimination Board of New South Wales on (02) 9268 5544(02) 9268 5544 or 1800 670 8121800 670 812 FREE or visit their website at,c=y.

For more information about discrimination and harassment at work, you can also visit

People you can talk to for support

If you would like to speak to someone about what is going on at work, you can talk to someone from Headspace or Kids Helpline. They are free and confidential counselling services for people under 25. You can call them or chat online at:

Kids Helpline: 1800 55 18001800 55 1800 FREE and

Headspace: 1800 650 8901800 650 890 FREE and

If you are over 25 and you’re feeling down because of something that’s happening at work, please contact Beyondblue on 1300 22 46361300 22 4636.

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