The 8 Most Common Forms of Workplace Discrimination
| Read Time: 9 minutes | Discrimination

California and United States law protect employees from workplace activities that mistreat them based on the following:

  • Age (for those 40 and older),
  • Ancestry,
  • Color,
  • Disability, 
  • Gender identity or expression,
  • Genetic information,
  • Marital status,
  • Military status, 
  • National origin, 
  • Race,
  • Religion, 
  • Sex, and
  • Sexual orientation.

And even though discrimination in the workplace has been illegal for decades, it still happens. The only way to stop workplace discrimination is to speak up about these incidents, bring lawsuits, and shine a light on discriminatory practices. Most companies care about the bottom line—and they will only stop discriminating when big verdicts and settlements make discrimination too costly to permit. Below is a guide to the most common types of workplace discrimination and how to spot them.

1. Race Discrimination

It is no secret that racial discrimination exists both in society and in the workplace. Racial discrimination is so common that more than a third, of claims to the EEOC each year are based on racial discrimination. Certain minority groups are often passed over at all stages of the employment process—they aren’t hired, they aren’t mentored, they aren’t promoted, they’re subjected to coded and unfair scrutiny, and then, in some cases, they’re wrongfully terminated (especially when they complain about it). One study found that this discrimination cost the US economy $16 trillion over the past 20 years.

You might recognize racial discrimination in your workplace through the direct actions of your boss, such as making comments about your color, racial background, or physical features on a consistent basis. And it does not matter whether your boss thinks they are giving you a compliment when they engage in race-based commentary; their statements can still be discriminatory. Racial discrimination might also lurk in the indirect practices of your employer that cause disparate treatment along racial lines. For instance, if your employer has an attendance policy enforced against one racial group despite violations by employees of all groups, your employer has engaged in illegal discrimination.

Even though the Civil Rights Act has protected minorities from race discrimination since the 1960s, race-based discrimination still is a major factor in the modern workplace, as we’ve written about before.

2. Disability Discrimination

Disability discrimination has become one of the most common forms of workplace discrimination claims made before the EEOC. For example, in 2019, a third of all discrimination claims alleged disability discrimination or failure to accommodate a disability. This kind of discrimination can take the form of assumptions about a disabled person’s ability to do the job, outright hostility, or unfair policies (for instance, so-called “no-fault attendance policies”) that have a disparate impact on disabled workers.

And even if you do not currently have a disability, an employer treating you differently because you previously had a disability or you associate with someone with a disability is actionable discrimination. For example, your employer could be subject to a lawsuit if it excludes you from work-related travel opportunities or after-hours training events because it assumes that you have to be home to tend to the mental or physical limitations of a family member.

The Americans with Disabilities Act has protected workers with disabilities for over 20 years, and California law provides even more robust protections for disabled workers. In fact, California law allows a victim of disability discrimination to file a complaint if their employer has five employees or more. But an employee cannot file a disability discrimination complaint with the EEOC unless their employer has at least 15 employees. 

3. Pregnancy Discrimination

Pregnancy discrimination is discrimination against expecting or new mothers. This type of workplace mistreatment can encompass many different types of discrimination, including:

  • Sex discrimination,
  • Gender discrimination, 
  • Disability discrimination, and 
  • Retaliation for exercising employee rights. 

Some employers refuse to hire a woman if she plans to become pregnant or is already pregnant. Other employers make excuses to discipline or terminate employees when they learn they are pregnant. Employers also “eliminate” positions while a pregnant employee is on leave or deny them leave altogether. Sometimes, employers aren’t aware of their obligation to provide leave or retaliate against women for exercising the right to leave.

Pregnancy discrimination can also take the form of discrimination against new mothers who return to work and need accommodations to breastfeed or pump. New mothers have the right to these accommodations.

You have several laws that back your right to be a working parent or use contraception, such as: 

  • Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964,
  • The California Family Rights Act, 
  • The California Fair Employment and Housing Act,
  • The Federal Family and Medical Leave Act, 
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act, 
  • The Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and
  • State and federal wage and hour laws.

No woman should have to choose between their job and their children, and the law doesn’t require you to: You have the right to a workplace free of discrimination and retaliation.

4. Gender Discrimination

Gender discrimination occurs when you are treated differently because of your gender, and the evidence shows that it’s rampant in the workforce. Gender discrimination takes many forms: it can be a failure to hire, but more often, women aren’t trained for leadership, they aren’t promoted, they are sidelined when they have kids, they’re paid less, or they are penalized for being “aggressive” or “persistent”—traits that most managers love in their male employees. To see that gender discrimination is alive and well, one only has to look at the country’s biggest companies to see that less than 5% of their CEOs are women.

Gender discrimination is likely to be an even bigger problem going forward. A study shows that women, especially women of color, were more likely than men to be furloughed or fired during the pandemic. Other women felt pressured to step back from work to take care of their children during school closures because they made less than their partners—a problem that is in part due to the wage gap and the fact that women are often underpaid for the same work.

While the facts and figures regarding setbacks or roadblocks for women in the workplace may be harrowing, they can also be a great help to you in a discrimination claim against your employer. The EEOC often accepts statistical evidence regarding an employer’s past practices as proof of unlawful discrimination. If your employer has policies that are neutral on their faces, but statistics show that those policies have consistently kept employees of a particular gender from getting hired or advancing, that employer has likely committed illegal, disparate impact discrimination.  

5. Age Discrimination

Age discrimination—discrimination against someone over who is 40 or older—is one of the fastest-growing examples of discrimination in the workplace today. Each year, more and more age discrimination charges are filed with the EEOC as the “baby boomer” generation ages and faces financial insecurity into retirement.

Age discrimination has a few common patterns. First, it’s much harder for older job-seekers to get hired; they have to apply for more jobs and are typically unemployed for longer than younger workers. They also face harassment from younger bosses and pressure to resign or retire. They’re also wrongfully terminated: Statistics show that more than half of workers over 50 lose a longtime job before they’re ready to retire.

There are countless age-based employment discrimination examples, including:

  • Employers that are unwilling to assign physical tasks to employees over 40 (regardless of actual ability); 
  • Employers that limit their recruiting to recent graduates, effectively excluding many candidates in their 40s and older; and 
  • Employers that consistently make jokes or negative comments regarding older individuals. 

While the age of the victim in an age discrimination case is important, the age of the discriminating party does not matter. Whether age-based bias comes from an individual under 40 or over 40, the behavior is illegal and could be subject to civil penalties. 

6. Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Discriminating against someone due to their sexual orientation or gender identity should never be tolerated in the workplace, yet it still occurs. We hear from clients who are harassed for their sexual orientation, who are made to feel unsafe at work, and whose supervisors deny them promotions because of who they are.

Unfortunately, discrimination based on employees’ sexual orientations or affiliations with the LGBTQ+ community has increased in recent years, with the EEOC receiving 1,857 charges in 2020, 1,968 charges in 2021, and 2,229 charges in 2022. Workplace discrimination examples based on sexual orientation can take several forms, including: 

  • Comments regarding whether an employee’s behavior is “masculine” or “feminine” enough; 
  • Refusal to allow a qualified employee to interface with clients because of the employee’s sexuality; and
  • Questions regarding an employee’s dating habits, sexual preferences, or relationship status.  

Employers need to take steps to make sure that all individuals in their workplaces do not engage in behavior that makes employees feel unsafe. So, depending on the circumstances, an employer might be liable for inappropriate, discriminatory behavior perpetrated by a supervisor, non-supervisor employee, client, contractor, or patron. 

7. Religious Discrimination

It’s also illegal under both state and federal law to discriminate against someone for their religious beliefs. This kind of discrimination often takes the form of harassment at work about your beliefs, retaliation for taking off religious holidays or for observances, or “hiding” an employee from public-facing roles due to religious clothing.

8. Parental Status Discrimination

It is common knowledge that employers can’t ask an applicant about their marital status or if they have children. You might be surprised to learn that discrimination based on parental status isn’t actually illegal! However, parental status discrimination often violates other anti-discrimination laws—for example, an employer might think women with kids don’t prioritize work, but men with kids are likely to work harder. Similarly, an employer might think it’s fine for a woman to take maternity leave- but penalize a man for taking baby bonding leave. Both of these prejudices are based on gendered assumptions about what “mothers should do” versus what “fathers should do,” and both could support a discrimination claim.

Discrimination against parents was increasingly common during the pandemic, as those with childcare obligations sometimes had to work different schedules or needed other accommodations.


Those who suffer or witness unlawful treatment at work suffer in many ways. Anyone who has been a victim of a discriminatory workplace might experience the following

  • Sleep deprivation,
  • Stress-related illness,
  • Low morale, and
  • Poor mental health.

All the above struggles can prevent employees from doing their best at work and compel others to leave work altogether. 

You might think that the negative health effects of discrimination only occur when an employer’s bias is loud and obvious, but this is not so. An employer’s implicit bias toward people more like them or against those who are different can result in significantly stressful professional setbacks for many. And microaggressions, which can be more subtle forms of discriminatory behavior, create chronic stress and a slew of health complications for those on the receiving end. 

You might be the target of a microaggressive statement when someone at work makes comments like one of the following: 

  • “I am surprised at how good your English is!” 
  • “I don’t know how you could leave your kids to come to work every day. You’re a different kind of mother.” 
  • “Oh, I keep getting you confused with [a different worker of the same ethnic, racial, or religious background].”
  • “What is this hairstyle called?”
  • “Where are you really from?”
  • “That’s a different kind of name.” 

While you can feel their inappropriate nature, sometimes the impact of these moments is hard to describe to others. However, our experienced employment discrimination attorneys know how to identify microaggressive conduct and take effective legal action against it.


There is no one reason why discrimination occurs in the workplace. Sometimes it happens because an employer is relying on an outdated hiring or management strategy, and sometimes it occurs because an employer is not self-aware or lacks education or experience when it comes to individuals from different backgrounds. But sometimes, discrimination occurs because an employer is outright prejudiced. Whatever the reason for its unlawfully biased actions, you have a right to hold a discriminatory employer accountable by filing a complaint or a lawsuit. 


You should start keeping tabs on discriminatory moments in your workplace as soon as they occur. Take notes regarding each occurrence, including when it happened, where it happened, what exactly was said or done, how you reacted, and who else witnessed it. You should also keep all discriminatory correspondence and pictures of discriminatory images. When you have this information down on paper, recognizing discrimination becomes easier. And if you cannot pinpoint the mistreatment you have suffered, an attorney can help you see what is actionable and what isn’t.

If you are ready to take action against discrimination, you typically need to file an internal complaint with your employer first. Keep all documents regarding your complaint, and if you cannot reach a resolution with your employer, you can file a government complaint or a civil lawsuit. You can file your discrimination complaint with the EEOC or the California Civil Rights Department (CRD) and have the agency either investigate and make orders regarding your claim. If you do not want the EEOC or CRD to resolve your complaint, you can initiate a civil lawsuit, but you must first receive a notice from the CRD or EEOC that states that you have a right to sue. 


Important tools an employer should have to reduce discrimination and discrimination lawsuits are a human resources department and a good employment attorney. Both these resources can educate employers about their legal obligations and let employees and management alike know that discrimination will not be tolerated. Employers can also prevent discrimination by regularly reviewing their policies and practices for biased blindspots. Employers should also vet their affiliates (such as recruiting consultants) for unlawful practices, and they should regularly train their employees regarding unlawful discrimination. There are many resources that the EEOC provides to employers to help them cultivate inclusive workplaces. 

Contact Our Los Angeles Employment Law Attorneys Today

Hostile work environments are illegal. They also prevent employees from performing well and hurt employers by forcing talented, dedicated workers out of the workforce or the company. With compassionate and personalized services, we have the experience you need to help protect your rights and gain justice for the wrongdoing against you.

If you have experienced discrimination at your job, do not hesitate to contact us today through our website or give us a call at 213-465-4802 to schedule a free consultation!

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Julian Burns King graduated with honors from Harvard Law School and founded King & Siegel in 2018. As head of the Firm’s discrimination and harassment practice areas, she champions the rights of working parents and victims of workplace discrimination and harassment. She has been recognized as a “Rising Star” by Super Lawyers annually since 2018 and has recovered tens of millions of dollars on behalf of her clients.

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