Despite growing momentum fueled by the #MeToo movement,  sexual harassment in the workplace is still a problem. And many victims don’t come forward.

After all, you may know something doesn’t feel right . . . but how do you know if it’s illegal? And what do you do if someone is harassing you?

If you think you may be a victim of sexual harassment, the experienced attorneys at Whitehead Employment Law can help. 

What laws protect against sexual harassment in California?

California has some of the nation’s strongest anti-harassment laws. 

Under FEHA, “harassment” on the basis of sex is illegal. This explicitly covers:

  • sexual harassment;
  • gender harassment; and
  • harassment based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.

Courts generally recognize two types of sexual harassment: 

  • quid pro quo, and
  • hostile work environment. 

Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase meaning “something for something.” It occurs when a supervisor says — or even implies — that an employee must perform a sexual favor to either:

  • gain an advantage (like a promotion or raise), or
  • avoid an adverse action (like a pay cut, demotion, or termination).

A hostile work environment results from unwelcome comments or behavior that are severe and/or pervasive enough to create an abusive work environment. The offensive behaviors don’t need to be directed at you specifically in order to qualify as a hostile work environment. 

Offending conduct may be visual, verbal, or physical Examples include:

  • displaying sexual photos, cartoons, or objects
  • leering
  • making sexual gestures
  • using sexual epithets or slurs
  • making sexual jokes or commentary 
  • touching or sexual horseplay

When is your employer liable for sexual harassment in California?

As noted above, quid pro quo sexual harassment must involve your supervisor. This is because the harasser must be able to make decisions about your employment.

Hostile work environment harassment, on the other hand, can involve supervisors, coworkers, and even nonemployees. 

The identity of your harasser will affect your employer’s legal responsibility (or “liability”).

Under FEHA, sometimes employers can be liable for sexual harassment by nonemployees. Nonemployees can include clients, customers, or independent contractors. 

What should you do if you think you’ve been the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace in California?

If your situation involves violence or assault, contact law enforcement right away. The California Attorney General’s website includes resources for victims of sexual violence.

Otherwise, your steps should be:

  1. Inform HR/your employer
  2. Document everything, including all instances of harassment, screenshots of text messages or phone calls, emails, etc. 
  3. File a Complaint with the DFEH and/or EEOC. At this stage, it’s helpful to consult a California employment attorney. He or she can  review your options and make sure you meet filing deadlines. If you’re unable to find an attorney to represent you, check out our guide on how to file claims with the DFEH.
  4. File a Harassment Lawsuit. File a lawsuit. Once again, it’s important to consult with an experienced employment attorney who can help you navigate your options.

Can your employer retaliate against you for a sexual harassment complaint?

If you’re still employed, you may fear your employer’s reaction to a complaint. What if they cut your hours, move you to a less desirable shift, or even fire you?

These are common concerns. But in California, retaliation against employees who complain about sexual harassment is illegal.

Most employers know this. But if your employer does retaliate, you’ll have another cause of action against it. For example, if you’re fired for your complaint, you may also pursue a wrongful termination claim.

So don’t let the fear of retaliation stop you. Reporting sexual harassment in California is your right.

Do you need a lawyer?

If you’re a victim of sexual harassment, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. 

Just remember California has powerful laws in place to protect you. You don’t have to live with an abusive situation.

In most cases, it’s better not to deal with a sexual harassment claim on your own. An experienced California employment attorney can help you:

  • Advise you on all your options
  • Be your advocate so you’re not dealing with your employer directly
  • Navigate legal procedures
  • Craft strong legal arguments
  • Maximize the compensation you may receive

At Whitehead Employment Law, we’re committed to fighting for the rights of California employees just like you. If you believe you’re a victim of sexual harassment, call us at (949) 936-4001 or fill out a confidential case evaluation form today. Our consultations are always free.  

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