Unfortunately, even though being sexually harassed at work is illegal under both federal and state employment laws, it still happens frequently. While the #MeToo movement has shed some light on the magnitude of the scope of the problem and has helped inspire action, it hasn’t solved it entirely. One of the reasons that employers and supervisors and managers and coworkers still continue to get away with workplace sexual harassment in California is because many people aren’t aware of what it looks like when it’s happening. They may not recognize that what is actually making them uncomfortable or anxious isn’t harmless flirtation, but actually harassment. They may think that they shouldn’t take it that seriously/personally or that there is nothing they can do, but neither of those things are true!
Workplace sexual harassment in California is defined as any unwelcome advances of a sexual nature – verbal, written, physical, visual, or otherwise. Because of that word “unwelcome”, there can sometimes be confusion over what does and what does not constitute actual harassment.
Here are 5 common examples of what forms sexual harassment may take at your job (and what you should do about it).
Example #1 – Quid Pro Quo
Quid pro quo is Latin for “something for something”; in this context, it is when something sexual is promised or required in order for something work related. Usually, someone in a position of power at work will intimidate, force, or request sexual favors from someone further down on the corporate ladder with a promise of giving them a promotion, pay raise, good word, or other career favor.
For example, Joe is Jane’s boss. During Jane’s annual performance review, Joe tells her that there is an open position at the company at the manager level, and he insinuates that he would be happy to ensure that she gets the position if she has sex with him – and that if she refuses, someone else will likely get the position instead.
This isn’t moral, and it is not legal either. it qualifies as workplace sexual harassment and is actually one of the most common forms of it. While it may not always be so blatant, or sometimes will be much more blatant than the above example, any exchange of sexual favors for others can be considered as quid pro quo.
Example #2 – Hostile Work Environment
A hostile work environment is created when a person (or pair, or group of persons) conduct or speech is so severe and pervasive that it creates an overall intimidating, demeaning, and inappropriate environment that negatively affects a person’s job performance (although you likely do not have to prove that performance actually suffered in any quantitative or qualitative way, only that the environment made it more difficult for you to do your job).
For example, imagine that the married Sebastian is single Susan’s coworker, and Susan is wearing low-cut blouses most days that show off her cleavage, frequently makes comments about her body and insinuates that Sebastian likes it, lingers by Sebastian’s desk every day before lunch break, and has asked Sebastian out on dates several times. That is likely creating an environment where it is difficult for Sebastian to focus on work even though he is committed to his wife, just wants to do his job well, and does not want those advances from Susan.
This isn’t fair to Sebastian, and is a form of workplace sexual harassment in California even though it is coming from a woman who is not in a position of power at work over him.
Example #3 – Inappropriate And Sexually Charged Jokes Or Comments
An example in this category could fall into the larger category of hostile work environment, depending on the circumstances – even if a person is not technically harassed directly, but is affected by the offensive conduct, they could be the victim of workplace sexual harassment.
For example, imagine Anna is the only female employee at a small startup comprised of heterosexual men who are constantly making jokes of a sexual nature about their female clients, their wives or girlfriends or dates, or women in general. Occasionally, but not infrequently, they will send company-wide emails with gifs and jokes that are sexually explicit. They have not improved their behavior even though Anna has made a request for them to. Even though those comments aren’t directed towards Anna, they could make it very uncomfortable for her to work around them, and that is workplace sexual harassment as defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Example #4 – Inappropriate Touching
Remember that a hostile work environment can be created not just verbally or visually, but also physically. For example, if Everett is Emma’s boss, and he stands behind her at most morning meetings and puts both of his hands on his shoulders and rubs them, and Emma finds that inappropriate, she may have a case for workplace sexual harassment in California.
It’s also important to note that Emma does not necessarily have to speak up about this behavior in order for her to have a complaint. The determination according to California law about whether or not the behavior qualifies is based on whether the behavior would be considered unwelcome by a reasonable person in the complaintant’s position, not whether or not the complaintant themselves actually told the perpetrator of the behavior to refrain.
However, anyone who believes they are a victim of workplace sexual harassment should speak up as much as they are able to. It brings the best chance of preventing the behavior earlier and lets the perpetrator know, if there was any confusion, that their behavior is unwelcome. It also can only make their case stronger if the behavior does not stop.
California law requires that employers have a process in place for employees to report harassment and investigate instances of harassment, but this makes it potentially un-doable if the harassment is coming from the employer.
Example #5 – Retaliation
Retaliation – taking negative action against an employee for speaking up, reporting harassment, making a formal complaint, filing a lawsuit, or something else – also constitutes workplace sexual harassment in California. For example, imagine that Sarah is a paralegal who is being sexually harassed by her boss, John, who is one of many partners at a law firm. She reports his behavior to HR, an investigation is launched, and John is ultimately fired. However, John was a much-loved, charming, popular person at the firm. After he is fired, Sarah not only finds herself getting the cold shoulder from the other partners, but actually finds her work being criticized more harshly than before and getting additional, undesirable tasks on her plate; the cases that would normally go to her are going to another, less experienced paralegal. Sarah likely has grounds for a retaliation claim.
Any Of These Examples of Workplace Sexual Harassment In California Sound Familiar? You Have Rights & Options!
If you believe that you have been a victim of workplace sexual harassment, in any form, you don’t have to just put up with it – you are not helpless. You have many rights and protections under California law! An employment law firm can explain whether or not you have a case based on your story and all the available evidence, and then help you take the strategic legal action that will lead to justice and compensation.
At Equal Justice Law Group, we are committed to standing up for wronged employees! We have achieved successful results for over 7,000 clients in our 21 years of practice. Call today to book a free consultation and learn about your next steps!