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Discrimination happens when a person, or a group of people, is treated less favourably than another person or group because of their background or certain personal characteristics. This is known as ‘direct discrimination’.

Example: An employer refused to hire a suitably qualified person as a shop assistant because they were Aboriginal, and instead hired a less qualified person of a different racial background. This could be racial discrimination.

It is also discrimination when an unreasonable rule or policy applies to everyone but has the effect of disadvantaging some people because of a personal characteristic they share. This is known as ‘indirect discrimination’.

Example: A policy that says only full-time workers will be promoted could discriminate against women who are more likely to work part-time to accommodate their family responsibilities.

Discrimination can be against the law if it is based on a person’s:

  • age
  • disability, or
  • race, including colour, national or ethnic origin or immigrant status
  • sex, pregnancy, marital or relationship status, family responsibilities or breastfeeding
  • sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Discrimination on these grounds is against the law in a number of areas of public life, including: employment, education, getting or using services or renting or buying a house or unit. Some limited exceptions and exemptions apply.

Employers have a legal responsibility to take all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination on these grounds. Employers can also be liable for the discriminatory acts of their employees. This is called ‘vicarious liability’.

Under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act, individuals can also lodge complaints with the Commission concerning discrimination in employment because of their religion, political opinion, national extraction, nationality, social origin, medical record, criminal record or trade union activity. Complaints will be reported to Parliament where the Commission finds a breach of the Act.