Distinguishing Between Discrimination and Harassment in the Workplace

August 25, 2023    litigation lawyers
Distinguishing Between Discrimination and Harassment in the Workplace

In today’s dynamic workplace, harassment and discrimination have received much attention. Although these terms are frequently used interchangeably, they refer to different concepts, each of which has significant implications for companies and employees.

Consultation with litigation lawyers Perth can be extremely helpful in cases with complex legal issues. This blog dives into the complexities of workplace harassment and discrimination, demonstrating the contrasts and their varied effects on individuals and groups.

Defining Discrimination

Workplace discrimination refers to the unjust treatment of a person at work because of a protected characteristic, such as race, gender, age, religion, ability, or country of origin. Discrimination in employment, advancement, compensation, and job assignments are just a few examples of how someone can be mistreated. Some employees can continuously and unfairly be disadvantaged because of obvious discrimination.

Understanding Harassment

On the other hand, harassment refers to any undesired conduct, communication, or action that makes an environment unpleasant, or intimidating. Such actions can be related to a person’s protected characteristics or occur in a larger context. Harassment frequently involves behaviors that defame, belittle, or diminish the victim, and fix unease or insecurity at work.

Key Points of Distinction Between Discrimination and Harassment

Nature of Behaviour: Discrimination’s core components are unfair treatment and denying opportunities based on protected characteristics. However, harassment entails repeated offensive activities that foster a hostile environment, whether or not they are connected to protected characteristics.

1. Intent versus Impact: Institutionalised behaviors or unintended, unconscious prejudices can also contribute to discrimination. On the other hand, harassment frequently involves conscious attempts to enrage the victim.
Individual versus Collective: Discrimination typically targets a certain person or group. On the other hand, workplace harassment frequently impacts many people, even though it can be directed at a specific person.

2. Isolated Incident versus Pattern: Sometimes discrimination happens in a single episode, like when a biased decision is made on a promotion opportunity. However, harassment can be identified by a recurring pattern of actions that, over time, generates emotional or psychological distress in the victim.

Different Facets of Workplace Discrimination

Age-Based Discrimination: Age discrimination occurs when workers receive unfair treatment for their age. Because prejudices exist in all demographics, it affects people of all ages.

Gender Discrimination: Discrimination based on gender is a typical form of prejudice. It can manifest as income disparities between men and women, limited opportunities for career progression, or stereotyping based on conventional gender norms.

Racial Discrimination: Racial discrimination occurs when someone is treated unfairly due to race or ethnicity. It encompasses behaviors that promote racial prejudice in both apparent and hidden ways.

Religious Bias: Employees can encounter bias due to their religious practices or convictions. This can lead to exclusion, unfair treatment, or a refusal to accept reasonable accommodations.

Various Dimensions of Workplace Harassment

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment includes unwanted advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical behaviors of a sexual nature that stimulate hostility. This is still a major issue that affects companies worldwide.

Bullying: Bullying is defined as repeated negative behaviors, mocking, or behavior intended to intimidate or degrade a person; it is not typically based on protected characteristics. Such behaviors can have grave emotional and psychological effects.

Cyber Harassment: Cyberbullying has become a serious issue in the age of technological advancement. This includes sending hurtful emails, texts, or posts intended to target and harm a specific individual.

  • Legal Implications and Employer Responsibilities under Australian Law
  • Let’s look at the laws that apply specifically in Australia and the duties that employers must uphold.
  • Legal Framework in Australia

The primary laws in Australia that govern workplace harassment and discrimination are the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984, the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975, the Disability Discrimination Act of 1992, and the Age Discrimination Act of 2004. These rules prohibit discrimination based on sex, race, age, and disability, in addition to other protected characteristics. There are additional provisions under the Fair Work Act of 2009 for workplace harassment, which can take many different forms.

Employer Responsibilities

  • Prevention and Policies: Employers are required by Australian law to develop and implement comprehensive anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. The definitions of harassment and discrimination in these rules and the steps taken to prevent and address these issues should be very clear.
  • Education and Training: Regular training sessions on bullying, harassment, and discrimination must be held. Employers should prioritize educating employees on their rights, obligations, and the consequences of acting unfairly or harassingly. Training can also broaden people’s understanding of unconscious biases and methods to combat them.
  • Available Reporting Methods: Employers must offer employees secure, convenient ways to file complaints about bullying, harassment, or discrimination. Employees must feel safe and supported when making a complaint.
  • Prompt Investigation: Employers must launch a thorough, unbiased, and private investigation immediately after receiving a complaint. Including a skilled  lawyer for workplace bullying situations is advised to ensure fairness and legitimacy during a complaint inquiry.
  • Appropriate Action: If evidence of discrimination, harassment, or bullying is discovered during an investigation, employers are legally obligated to take appropriate disciplinary action against the perpetrator. The severity of the punishment will range from counseling and training to employment suspension or termination, depending on the circumstances.
  • Protection from Retaliation: Employers must ensure that workers are not the target of retaliation after submitting a complaint. Retaliation can worsen a hostile work environment and undermine the objectivity of the reporting process.
  • Promotion of Inclusivity: Employers must work hard to create a diverse and inclusive work environment. By encouraging a workplace that promotes many points of view, cultures, and backgrounds, employers can help to prevent the growth of discriminatory attitudes.
  • Legal Compliance: Employers must ensure their procedures abide by Australia’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment legislation. There are severe repercussions for breaching these laws, including fines and damage to the company’s reputation.


In conclusion, companies must pay attention to and take action against workplace harassment and discrimination because these are serious violations of Australian law. Everyone must uphold the law and fulfill their duties to maintain a secure, friendly, and productive workplace. Employers can promote a workplace where employees’ rights and dignity are respected by prioritizing prevention, education, reporting, investigations, and appropriate responses. Consulting an experienced workplace discrimination lawyer can offer valuable guidance and help in the effort to create an inclusive workplace.

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