What Counts as Sexual Harassment in California?

Every person who works in an office or other work environment should have some idea of what sexual harassment is – and if they do not, their HR team should rectify that – but what is the line between behavior that is annoying and harmful but not legally actionable and behavior that can form the basis of a sexual harassment suit in California? This can involve a challenging factual analysis that may ultimately be impossible to predict in some cases short of having a judge or jury decide, but there are definitely situations in which you should speak to an employment law attorney about your rights in pursuing a sexual harassment claim.

When a Co-Worker Is Liable For Sexual Harassment

Under state and federal sexual harassment laws, there are three main types of sexual harassment that can form the basis of a lawsuit:

  1. quid pro quo harassment, in which a co-worker or supervisor offers benefits in exchange for sexual favors;
  2. where an employee feels forced to quit or switch roles or departments due to unwanted sexual advances or other types of harassment;
  3. a hostile work environment where an employee feels unsafe or threatened by others.

With a quid pro quo harassment matter, even a single act of unwanted sexual advance might qualify as sexual harassment if it is made in conjunction with an offer, such as a promotion or not being fired. Other types of harassment might require a showing of a pattern of repeated behavior over time that is not sufficiently addressed.

Aspects of a hostile work environment that could support a sexual harassment claim include:

  • Unwanted sexual advances, whether physical or verbal
  • Unwanted touching, including blocking another’s way
  • Offensive sexual jokes or derogatory or offensive comments
  • Leering and sexual gestures
  • Display of offensive, obscene, or sexual materials on company property
  • Threatening retaliation for turning down sexual advances or raising concerns

When an Employer is Liable for Sexual Harassment

An employer is liable for sexual harassment, in addition to the individual who actually harassed the victim, when the sexual harassment was performed by a supervisor and/or where management (such as HR) is made aware of the sexual harassment being perpetrated by coworkers and yet fails to address it.

Your HR representative or supervisor may in fact try to discourage you from speaking up about sexual harassment or scare you into thinking doing so will hurt your job prospects, and this alone may support a claim that the employer is liable.

By talking to a California employment rights attorney in a confidential setting about your situation, you can learn about your rights and options for financial recovery without having your employer being made aware of what you shared with the attorney.