What is sexual harassment in California?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California law prohibits covered employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, gender, gender identity or gender expression. Sexual harassment is a form of sex-based discrimination. Sexual harassment comes in two forms: quid pro quo claims and hostile work environment claims.

Quid Pro Quo Claims

Quid pro quo is a Latin term meaning “this, in exchange for that.” The basis of a California quid pro quo claim is a supervisor’s demand that an employee performs some type of sexual or romantic favor in exchange for a work benefit such as hire, raise, promotion, time off, or remaining employed. A supervisor’s demand can be open or implied. While quid pro quo claims certainly cover demands for sexual acts, they also cover less egregious demands, such as a supervisor’s request that an employee goes out on a date with the supervisor.

Hostile Work Environment Claims

An employee has a claim for hostile work environment sexual harassment when the behavior of others in the workplace creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. Hostile work environment claims are extremely common, with approximately one in five workers being exposed to a hostile work environment at some point in their career.

To prove a hostile work environment claim, an employee must show that the workplace harassment was severe or pervasive. Thus, petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents may not rise to the level of a hostile work environment. When considering a hostile work environment claim, courts will look for the following:

  • Unwelcome touching
  • Crude jokes;
  • The posting of offensive materials in common areas;
  • Ridiculing or name-calling;
  • The use of threatening remarks;
  • The use of sexualized language;
  • Any other form of unwelcome sexually-related act.

A hostile work environment claim may be based on a supervisor’s conduct, or the conduct of other employees. Even the behavior of non-employees may create a hostile work environment.

It is important that the employer is aware of the harassment as cases have been thrown out of court after finding the employer was not aware the harassment happened. You can report harassment to a supervisor, manager, officer, human resources, or hotline, or follow any procedure your employer makes available. You are not required to report harassment to the person who harassed you. If you feel you are in danger you should contact a sexual harassment/abuse help line or law enforcement.

The employment lawyers at the McCormack Law Firm in San Francisco have helped employees throughout California who experienced sexual harassment or a hostile work environment, and provide free consultations for this type of case. Our attorneys will help explain your options and answer your questions about the legal process.

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