What Qualifies As Workplace Sexual Harassment In California?

Sep 14, 2022 | Employment

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment is in the societal spotlight more than ever. Workplace sexual harassment in California is an issue that is getting more attention and scrutiny due to the current media climate. Because more and more victims are coming forward with their stories, many employees are discovering that they have similar stories, or are wondering if the law would consider them to also be victims. 

However, it can be difficult to understand what “counts” as workplace sexual harassment. Knowing your rights is critical to protecting yourself and holding abusers accountable. As the consequences of coming forward can be serious, both for yourself and for the perpetrator(s), it is important to fully understand what California law defines as workplace sexual harassment and the extent of your legal rights before making a claim. 

Let’s take a closer look at what qualifies so you can get a better idea of whether or not you have a genuine case. If so, you can schedule a free, completely confidential consultation with  Southern California Attorneys, A.P.C and discuss your options. We may be able to recover significant compensation on your behalf!

Sexual Harassment Law in California

California Sexual Harassment laws fall within the parameters of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The FEHA definition of sexual harassment is “discrimination based on sex, gender expression, gender identity, or sexual orientation”. The simplest way to describe sexual harassment is gratuitous sexual advances or actions, verbal or physical, that occur within the context of a professional setting.

Types Of Workplace Sexual Harassment In California

Workplace sexual harassment in California can usually be classified into two different categories: quid pro quo and hostile work environmentt. Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase that means “something for something”, or “this for that”, and describes situations where an employer offers to trade professional favors for sexual ones. Hostile work environment harassment is broader – it encompasses several repeated actions in a professional setting that make workers uncomfortable and are not stopped despite warning.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

In most quid pro quo harassment situations, an employer, manager, supervisor, or other authority figure will use their position to leverage intimacy or sexual favors from their subordinates. However, quid pro quo can also occur between coworkers of the same rank. Examples of quid pro quo harassment include:

  • An employer offering their subordinate a pay raise in exchange for sexual favors
  • A coworker threatening to fabricate negative gossip about an employee unless they agree to date
  • A manager refusing to honor an employee’s vacation time without a sexual incentive
  • An employer granting employee opportunities and benefits in return for sexual favors
  • A supervisor threatening to report an employee’s poor performance to corporate unless they perform sexual favors (or to fabricate that report)
  • An employer insinuating that if an employee wants to move up in the company, they will perform sexual favors

Hostile Work Environment Harassment

Hostile work environment harassment is more common, and often more subtle; it can be trickier to spot than quid pro quo. This type of workplace sexual harassment in California most frequently occurs between coworkers, but can also easily be between employers/managers and employees. Some examples of hostile work environment harassment include:

  • Unrelenting staring, winking, flirting, whistling, or cat-calling that is objectively offensive
  • Inappropriate decor such as posters, photography, or calendars that are sexual in nature
  • Continuous touching, rubbing, or invasion of personal space that is not welcome
  • Continuous teasing about sexual subjects that seems malicious, intimidating, or threatening
  • Constructive discharge: An employee is forced to quit their job because the management team has created an intolerable working environment

For hostile work environment harassment to take place and be legally recognizable, the situation must involve one or more of the following factors:

Sex/Gender or Sexual Orientation

If a coworker or employee experiences bullying at work due to their gender or sexual preference, this is a legally chargeable situation under California sexual harassment law. Men are not the only gender engaging in sexual harassment in the workplace. If a woman chastises another man or woman at work for their gender identity or sexual orientation, she can be held legally accountable for such behavior. A group of men ganging up on a woman to verbally abuse her at work also falls into this category. In such an instance, a coworker who witnesses this behavior may file their own hostile work environment claim.

Undesirable Behavior

If there is a situation where a coworker or manager is subjecting someone to unwelcome sexualized behavior in the form of verbal or physical activity, that qualifies as workplace sexual harassment in California. Victims of this type of harassment sometimes hesitate to file a complaint because they permit the activities in the moment; workers often allow unwelcome behavior to take place out of fear of reprisal.

A worker who allows things like dirty jokes or sexual imagery in their presence while at work is not necessarily culpable. Many people see inappropriate things at work but don’t speak up for a variety of different reasons. However, those who actually engage in the dirty joke telling or displaying of inappropriate images and like behavior, when they have been made aware that it is unwelcome to others, may find themselves on the receiving end of a claim.

Objectively Offensive

The two factors above make up the “subjective standard”, but there is also an objective standard that qualifies certain behavior as workplace sexual harassment in California. The standard to meet is that any reasonable person in the victim’s position would also find the actions or behavior disturbing. The victim’s situation is always considered when applying this standard.

If someone who is pregnant, transgender, or a sexual assault survivor must routinely hear jokes about said topics at work, when deciding if the situation was reasonably offensive, consideration for these situations would apply.

Pervasive Or Severe

California law states that sexual harassment is behavior that is too pervasive or severe for a safe and comfortable work environment. Either can qualify the behavior. If a coworker or manager physically assaults someone, this is a perfect example of severity. However, most forms of workplace sexual harassment occur repeatedly over time. For example, someone who experiences direct and constant taunting, bullying, or intimidation from several coworkers over several months is experiencing pervasive harassment.

Call Southern California Sexual Harassment Attorneys

Employers in California who have more than 50 employees are legally required by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) to provide two hours of sexual harassment prevention training to all supervisory employees every two years; they are also required to take other forms of action if employees report instances of sexual harassment. However, sometimes employers are the perpetrators. Anyone may find themselves a victim of harassment, but women and undocumented immigrants (who may fear deportation but who have the same rights under federal and state discrimination laws as documented employees) are particulary vulnerable. 

If, after reading this article, you think that you may be a victim of workplace sexual harassment in California, or if you were forced to leave your job because of it, you do have options. Your best recourse is likely to consult with local attorneys who can listen to your story, explain whether or not you have a case, investigate your claim and gather evidence, and file a claim on your behalf. Sexual harassment at work can jeopardize your ability to earn wages and can be humiliating or traumatic besides; you may be entitled to financial compensation, and taking legal action can prevent others in the future from being victimized by the same person/people/company. The anti-discrimination and employment lawyers at Southern California Attorneys, A.P.C., can help you understand your next steps! We have over 60 years of combined experience on our aggressive legal team, and we have a track record of success when it comes to defending workers’ rights and winning claims. Coming forth with a claim of workplace sexual harassment may be time-sensitive, so don’t hesitate to call us today and schedule a free, confidential consultation. You don’t have to pay us unless and until we recover damages for you!

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