What is discrimination?

Information on the different forms of discrimination and harassment. What is not covered by discrimination?

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Discrimination is an unequal treatment of persons or groups based on certain motives (e.g. descent, skin-colour, disability) that results in disadvantages for the people concerned.

In general we distinguish between direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, incitement to discrimination and discrimination by association.

If a supervisor or employer does not react to a discrimination or harassment that he or she becomes aware of, he or she also commits a discrimination and therefore becomes liable.


Direct discrimination means that a person receives a less favorable treatment than somebody else in a comparable situation.


  • A hospital refuses to treat a patient due to his strong foreign accent (direct discrimination based on ethnic background).
  • An Upper Austrian community refuses to give the appartments owned by them to homosexuals (direct discriminiation based on sexual orientation).

Indirect discrimination means that apparently neutral regulations, criteria or procedures can discriminate against certain people. Indirect discrimination is often concealed, because it does not directly aim at the disadvantage of certain people or groups.


  • The state of Upper Austria entitles only full-time employees to further training. Part-time employees – all of them women – are denied further education and thereby a career advancement. (indirect discrimination based on gender)
  • A public bath is renovated. Thereby all the barrier-free equipment and changing rooms are removed so that it becomes impossible for people with physical disabilities to use the public facilities. (indirect discrimination based on a disability)


An indirect discrimination is allowed if it is justified and adequate.


  • It is tolerable to employ only members of a certain religion for the respective religious education.

Harassment is a behaviour based on one of the motives of discrimination. This behaviour is unwanted, inappropriate, offensive and potentially humiliating for the person addressed. Harassment creates an environment that is characterised by intimidation, hostility, humiliation or defamation.


  • A woman is ridiculed for her homosexual relationship by colleagues. Comments such as "if she had a real man just for once she would leave that" make her feel humiliated. She withdraws herself from social life at work.

The incitement or invitation to discriminate as well as an employer's comission to act against discrimination or harassmentis considered a form of discrimination.


  • The manager of an enterprise funded by the Land Oberösterreich incites the  HR-manager not to employ applicants older than 45 years.
  • A disabled worker is ridiculed for his handicap by a co-worker. Their supervisor knows about the harassment but does not step in.

Discrimination by association is a special form of discrimination, as not the person discriminated against holds one of the motives for a discrimination but a person associated with him or her.


  • A worker at a regional hospital has a severely disabled son. Due to her responsibilities as his main-attendant, she works part-time. Unlike her colleagues, her times off to take care of her son are held against her. She is not offered further training and her supervisor calls her "lazy". Though the  woman is discriminated against on the basis of her son's disability, she is the victim of a discrimination.
  • An employee at a community is being harassed by his colleages, because of his girlfriend's ethnic background (discrimination/harassment by association).

No discrimination is/are:

  • Unequal treatment based on nationality as far as it is legally binding and justified

    E.g.: Working in the fields of sovereignity administration requires the Austrian citizenship.
  • Measures to enhance equality and reduce or compensate for disadvantages ("positive discrimination")

    E.g.: Favouring female applicants with the same qualifications to soften up the disproportionate occupational distribution in some areas
  • Unequal treatment based on a certain attribute that poses an essential, decisive and adequate occupational requirement

    E.g.: A job advertisement of a counseling office for men adresses to male psychotherapists only.
  • Unequal treatment based on age, as far as it is objective and justified

    E.g.: Certain occupations such as the fire brigade have an age-limit for applicants for security reasons.

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