What Counts as Discrimination in the Workplace?

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits workplace discrimination or harassment based on actual or perceived ancestry, age (40+), color, disability, genetic information, gender identity or expression, marital status, medical condition, military or veteran status, national origin, race, religion, sex/gender, and sexual orientation.

Most people know that blatant acts of discrimination and harassment are illegal, and most people can identify the obvious ones: the coworker who uses racial slurs, the manager who inappropriately touches female employees, the employer who will not hire or promote a certain worker because of their sexual orientation. However, even more subtle forms of discrimination that may not appear wrong on their face are still prohibited if they impact your employment.

This post is part of our Employment Law 101 series. Learn more here to understand your fundamental rights.  

Subtle Examples of Workplace Discrimination

Subtle acts of discrimination based on these actual or perceived classes can take many forms.

Examples generally include:

  • Questioning the judgment of a certain worker
  • Making inflammatory or insulting “jokes”
  • Using terms such as “us” and “them” to refer to minorities or other genders
  • Ascribing negative attributes to only certain workers
  • Failing to make eye contact with certain employees
  • Avoiding socializing or working with certain employees
  • Talking about stereotypes or making inappropriate comments
  • Excluding certain workers from professional or social events
  • Giving overly harsh criticism or constant micromanaging
  • Or having reduced expectations of certain workers

Other types of subtle discrimination occur based on the specific protected class. These include:

Ancestry/Color/National Origin/Race

  • Excluding an applicant from hire or promotion because they have a name associated with a particular nationality
  • Asking inappropriate or unwanted, personal questions about family history or ancestry, especially in an interview
  • Commenting that someone is different than expected and using stereotypes to form judgments, e.g. that an Asian worker “is surprisingly bad at math”
  • Commenting about looks, e.g. that an African American employee looks “so much more professional” with straight hair than with her natural curls
  • Obsession with the way someone looks, dresses, or eats (or obsession with certain aspects of their bodies, the clothes they wear, or the food they eat)

Disability/Genetic Information/Medical Condition

  • Asking inappropriate or unwanted questions about a disability or genetic/medical condition, especially in an interview
  • Requiring job applicants to take medical exams
  • Keeping certain workers away from customers/clients or in more secluded roles because of how they look

Sex, Gender, or Sexual Orientation

  • Criticizing certain workers about expected gender roles, e.g. that a male worker shouldn’t be so “sensitive” and a female worker shouldn’t be so “aggressive”
  • Expecting certain gender-role compliance, e.g. expecting men not to wear nail polish and women not to wear ties
  • Job placement, e.g. placing only women as nurses and only men as doctors
  • Commenting that someone is different than expected and using stereotypes to form judgments, e.g. that a female worker is “surprisingly good at management”
  • Displaying discomfort or disgust at certain worker’s identities, expressions, or sexual orientation
  • Asking inappropriate and probing personal questions


  • Excluding an applicant from hire or promotion because they have a name associated with a particular religion
  • Obsession with the way someone eats, dresses, or acts
  • Obsession with the food someone eats, the music they listen to, the clothes they wear, the holidays they observe, or the behaviors they do or do not engage in
  • Pressure to convert religions, obsessive talk about religion
  • Belittling religion in general

This list is by no means exhaustive. If you believe you have experienced workplace discrimination, talk to an experienced employment lawyer today.

Our Employment Lawyers Fight for California Workers

At King & Siegel LLP, we have helped hundreds of workers hold employers accountable through legal actions. If you believe you have been wrongfully discriminated against at your workplace, our attorneys are here to help.

Need legal help? We provide free, confidential consultations to California workers. You should contact us as soon as possible to make sure your claim is still within the time limits set by law. If you have experienced discrimination or harassment, contact us today through our website or give us a call at (213) 214-3757 to schedule a free consultation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *