Understanding associative discrimination for managers

A quick summary:

  • What is Associative Discrimination
  • What are all the protected characteristics?
  • Direct vs Indirect Discrimination
  • Discrimination by association examples
  • How to prevent associative discrimination
  • What if employers ignore associative discrimination?
  • Conclusion on Associative Discrimination

Employers are responsible for the equality of their workforce; a legal obligation. Despite this, not every leader adheres to the law. In this guide to associative discrimination, we’re looking at definitions, examples and more.

Most HR professionals should be familiar with discrimination in the workplace, but what about associative discrimination? What about the difference between direct and indirect discrimination?

These various ins and outs must be well understood, especially amongst HR departments that have a duty of care for employees. And whilst we have written similar guides, they don’t cover associative discrimination.

Now, we’ve taken our findings from previous resources and new research to create this one-stop guide to a totally different angle on the topic. Here you’ll discover all the signs and risks of associative discrimination.

What is associative discrimination?

Associative discrimination refers to a circumstance in which a person is treated unfairly due to their association with someone with a protected characteristic. For instance, a parent with a disabled child might be treated differently because of their relationship (association) with their child.

This is unquestionably wrong and people shouldn’t have to experience associative discrimination. But it can happen and does happen in the workplace. This usually occurs because of a certain relationship such as a friend, sibling, parent or spouse.  

Their relationship is what makes this form of mistreatment associative discrimination. It’s the role of a manager to understand the concept of associative discrimination and to educate their wider workforce.

From outright unfair treatment to comments labelled as humour, associative discrimination can come in all shapes and sizes and leaders must recognise this.
Now although not all protected characteristics can be forms of associative discrimination, it’s worth knowing these qualities as a manager.

What are all the protected characteristics?

As we’ve just touched on, not all characteristics can fall under associative discrimination. But many can. Regardless, do you know the characteristics that fall under the Equality Act 2010? Here’s the list:

  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion/belief
  • Race
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Marriage & civil partnership
  • Gender reassignment
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Sex

These characteristics are protected to create a fair, equal and inclusive workplace for all. They prevent discrimination from occurring in any shape or form, but also associative discrimination.

A graph explaining direct and indirect discrimination

Direct vs Indirect Discrimination

But now that we’re aware of the protected characteristics, what’s the difference between direct and indirect discrimination? Does it have anything to do with associative discrimination? Let’s take a look…

Direct Discrimination

As the name suggests, ‘direct discrimination’ refers to the mistreatment directed at a specific person. This will be an insult or attack on any of the listed characteristics above and from one person to another.

Indirect Discrimination

With indirect discrimination is having certain policies that treat/impact people differently within your team. It’s also the category that associative discrimination falls within. It’s putting others at a disadvantage indirectly and as a result of something else.

A female manager looking unhappy
Discrimination by association examples

Discrimination by association examples

So, we’ve covered “What is associative discrimination?” and the various protected characteristics involved in the Equality Act 2010. We’ve also discussed the different types of discrimination that occur in both general life and work.

We’re now going to look at some discrimination by association examples. These should give you, as a manager, an even clearer understanding of associative discrimination. Outlining exactly how people are treated unfairly by association.

Racial discrimination by association

Joe introduces his manager to his wife, who is from Singapore. Joe’s manager then begins to treat Joe differently in the workplace since this encounter. This mistreatment is discrimination by association, as Joe’s manager realises Joe’s wife is Asian.

Joe should raise this associative discrimination with a senior team member or HR professional, explaining how his manager has suddenly begun making certain remarks and exhibiting rude and insulting behaviours.

Employees all holding hands in the office
Discrimination by association must be stopped in the workplace

Disability discrimination by association

Emma has applied for a new managerial job. Her employer discovers that Emma is a carer for her disabled daughter. She spends much of her time caring for her daughter, but can still meet the demands of the position in question.

Despite this, the recruiter decides that Emma is not suitable for the role. She fits the position perfectly, but the employer questions Emma’s ability to meet the demands of the role as she has the responsibility of being a carer.

This is a form of associative discrimination and it should be raised with the senior recruitment manager within the company currently hiring.

Sexual orientation discrimination by association

Simon bumps into a colleague whilst out with his sister. His sister is married to another woman, and Simon’s colleague begins to try him differently back in the workplace. This involves making insulting comments and discriminative jokes about Simon’s sister.

Although it’s not Simon’s sexual orientation, he’s on the receiving end of a lot of indirect discrimination that should be pulled up. In this case, much like in the previous examples, Simon should speak to his manager about the attacks from his colleague.

Final thoughts on the discrimination by association examples

These examples above demonstrate how one individual can experience indirect discrimination due to their association with someone who possesses a protected characteristic.

Many people may not be aware that this is in fact associative discrimination. That’s exactly why we’ve put this guide together so you can share it with your colleagues. Because some employees may experience these scenarios and not know what to do.

A woman high-fiving her team
Preventative measures for associative discrimination

How to prevent associative discrimination

Now let’s turn our attention to preventative measures you can take as a manager to stop associative discrimination from happening. These points below will overall help you become a more conscious and supportive leader.

Below we’re going to cover…

  • Educate your workforce on associative discrimination
  • Diverse and inclusive hiring practices
  • Creating disciplinary procedures
  • Treating all forms of discrimination with equal measures

Educate everyone on associative discrimination

Educating your wider team about the consequences and damages of associative discrimination can be a preventative measure. Sometimes people need to be taught the rights and wrongs.

This can be achieved through an associative discrimination webinar, or perhaps via guest speakers for your workforce. There are plenty of ways to go about educating employees, even if it means line managers hosting one-to-ones with their teams.

Once your team members are aware of the impact associative discrimination can have, it should diminish it from happening. However, that cannot be ruled out, so it’s important to also educate employees on the disciplinary measures in place too.

Be diverse and inclusive with your hiring efforts

Hiring the right people is important; those with a particular set of skills and experience that you are looking for. But ensuring you’re hiring a diverse and inclusive workforce is equally as important.

Not only does this unlock further potential and opportunities, having people from all walks of life and backgrounds, but it creates an open culture. One that values diversity and inclusion.

As a manager, think about how you can introduce more diversity into your hiring practices. This alone will deter associative discrimination from occurring.

Two employees arguing about associative discrimination

Have a clear disciplinary procedure

When it comes to associative discrimination, having a set disciplinary policy in place will most certainly discourage this behaviour. After you’ve educated your workforce on associative discrimination, you should raise awareness about the disciplinary procedures involved.

For instance, if your company is looking to follow a strict policy that includes immediate dismissal for discrimination, make sure employees know what to expect. The procedure isn’t there to scare them, it’s to show them what’s right and what’s wrong.

It also demonstrates as a company that you do not stand for associative discrimination or any sort of unfair treatment for that matter.

Similar read: The complete guide to employee empowerment

Treat all forms of discrimination with equal seriousness

Closely following disciplinary procedures for associative discrimination, it’s important to treat all forms of discrimination with equal measures. What we mean is, although it’s not a direct form of unfair treatment, it mustn’t be overlooked by an employer or manager.

Whether direct or indirect, showing a strict stance sets an example as a manager. All forms of discrimination can have drastic effects on people. Whilst some managers may allow for associative discrimination to go ignored, do not become that manager!

But in treating all forms of discrimination with the same seriousness, you must educate your team on this as a value. Are they aware that unfair treatment of any sort is unacceptable?

What if employers ignore associative discrimination?

Associative discrimination is protected under the Equality Act 2010. If you’ve experienced this first-hand or know someone who has, it should be reported to a senior HR professional.

It’s likely a senior member of the HR team will be well-informed about associative discrimination and the best route of action. However, this isn’t about how to report associative discrimination, this is what you should do should it be ignored.

If you find that associative discrimination has gone ignored, you could consider legal action. This involves seeking out an employment tribunal and legal aid against the associative discrimination you’ve experienced.

Additionally, it’s worth considering a career move somewhere that values diversity and inclusion and doesn’t discriminate.

Employees in the office shaking hands
Our final thoughts on associative discrimination

Conclusion on Associative Discrimination

As you can probably tell by now, associative discrimination is a serious matter. One that not every leader is knowledgeable on. It’s something that threatens your company’s reputation, hiring efforts, retention and wider team morale.

And that just scratches the surface. Allowing for any form of discrimination to take place gives off a sign that workplace bullying is okay; that toxicity is tolerated. That should not be the case for any business of any size or sector.

So, let’s summarise what we’ve learnt in this guide to associative discrimination:

  • The definition of associative discrimination and the differences between direct and indirect mistreatment.
  • Various examples which show real-life scenarios where people can experience associative discrimination
  • Preventative measures that can reinforce the idea of inclusivity and diminish the chances of unfair treatment for colleagues throughout your company

We hope that, as a leader, this guide to associative discrimination is a source of motivation. Motivation to step up your approach to unfair treatment in the workplace. That’s not to say your company doesn’t do enough already, but if you started this guide unsure of what associative discrimination is, we’ve achieved something.

You’re now familiar with the types of associative discrimination, including various preventative measures you can take. Knowledge you can take forth to create a happier, accepting workforce.

Because if there’s one thing we’ve learnt about the future of work it’s that inclusivity is key. The world is more connected than ever, and with the rise of things like remote work, it’s about to become even more so.

If you take one thing away from this guide, make sure it’s this…

When everyone works in harmony, they can thrive for your business.

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