Legal Guide

A Quick Guide to Sexual Harassment in California and When to Hire a Sexual Harassment Lawyer

Unfortunately, sexual harassment is possible in any workplace. Sexual harassment can take the form of pictures, comments, jokes, or more overt situations, such as asking for sexual favors. If you have experienced sexual harassment in California, consulting a sexual harassment lawyer can help you understand your options and navigate the complaint process.

What Laws Apply to Sexual Harassment in California?

Federal and state laws apply to sexual harassment in California. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sexual discrimination in employment. Sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination. Title VII also prohibits retaliation against anyone who reports sexual harassment or participates in the investigation of sexual harassment.

In California, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits sexual harassment. California’s law includes employees, applicants, interns, and volunteers. The Act additionally requires organizations to provide employees with information about their sexual harassment policies and training about sexual harassment.

What Is Sexual Harassment in California?

Sexual harassment includes unwanted sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature, including:

  • Visual Conduct: Includes posters or cartoons that are sexual in nature.
  • Verbal Conduct: Includes verbal abuse, or making sexual jokes or comments about a person’s body. 
  • Physical Conduct: Includes touching an individual inappropriately or blocking an individual’s movements.

In California, sexual harassment does not require sexual desire or attraction and can occur between individuals of any gender. For the conduct to be considered sexual harassment, the conduct must be unwelcome and must unreasonably interfere with the individual’s work performance.

There are two categories of sexual harassment: hostile work environment and quid pro quo. Both types of harassment can occur together or separately. 

It's important to note that the person reporting the conduct does not have to be the person harassed. The individual could be an employee affected by witnessing the harassment.

What Is Quid Pro Quo?

“Quid pro quo” is a Latin term that translates to “something for something.” Quid pro quo harassment occurs when someone implicitly or explicitly offers something in return for a sexual favor or threatens an action if the individual fails to provide a sexual favor. Usually, quid pro quo harassment occurs between a supervisor and a subordinate. The benefits offered could include the following:

  • Promotions
  • Raises
  • Being hired for a job
  • Recommendations
  • Preferred schedules or assignments

While the threats could include:

  • Being fired
  • Unpopular schedules or assignments
  • Negative performance reviews

For quid pro quo harassment, the individual with the complaint must actually suffer the consequence. If the supervisor fails to follow through on the threat, there is no quid pro quo harassment.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

Hostile work environment harassment is when the organization makes it intolerable for an employee to go to work because of sexual harassment. The conduct must unreasonably interfere with the individual’s work performance or create a hostile working environment. Unlike quid pro quo, the person harassing the employee could be a supervisor or another person the employee interacts with at work. Two conditions must exist for a hostile work environment. The conduct must be (1) pervasive or severe and (2) because of the individual’s sex.

Who Can Be Found Liable for Sexual Harassment? What Remedies Are Available?

California law dictates that the individual committing the harassment is personally liable. The employer is liable when a supervisor or employer is harassing an employee. The employer may also be liable when they knew or should have known about the harassment and did nothing to stop it.

If the complaint is successful, the person who files the complaint may be eligible for several remedies, such as:

  • Damages, which are financial in nature
  • Hiring or promotion
  • Reinstatement to the previous position 
  • Back pay

What To Do After Experiencing Sexual Harassment?

If you have experienced sexual harassment, know that you have rights. Contact a sexual harassment lawyer to help understand these rights and determine the next steps. 

You or the person experiencing the sexual harassment should also do the following:

  • Review the organization’s sexual harassment policy to learn about the employer’s complaint process
  • Retain any documentation or evidence of the harassment
  • Note the names of any individuals who may have witnessed the sexual harassment
  • Retain the documentation of any complaints filed with the employer and any responses to the complaints

Be aware that there are two deadlines for filing a complaint:

  • The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides 180 days from the most recent incident to file a complaint. 
  • The California Civil Rights Department (CRD) provides three years from the most recent incident to submit the complaint.

As a first step, the employee cannot sue the individual or employer unless they request an immediate right to sue from the CRD. In most cases, the individual must proceed with the appropriate complaint processes and request a right to sue from the CRD or EEOC. If the CRD grants the right to sue, the reporting employee has one year to file a lawsuit. If the EEOC grants the right to sue, the individual has 90 days to file a lawsuit.

When Should an Employee Consult a Sexual Harassment Lawyer?

The reporting employee may consult with a lawyer at any point in time. In many cases, however, it is better to contact a sexual harassment lawyer as early as possible after being sexually harassed. During the consultation, the employee can discuss all of their options prior to quitting or filing a complaint with the organization.

Why Should an Employee Contact a California Sexual Harassment Lawyer?

An experienced California sexual harassment lawyer can help a victim of sexual harassment navigate the laws and administrative agencies that exist to address sexual harassment in California. A sexual harassment lawyer can help employees chart the best course of action to proceed with their complaints, whether by requesting a right to sue or filing a complaint with the EEOC or CRD. 

A sexual harassment lawyer will take on the process of compiling information, filing paperwork, and communicating with EEOC or CRD so that the employee can get back to their life. The lawyer will ensure that all deadlines are met, will strategize the best way to proceed with the complaint of sexual harassment, and will work tirelessly to seek justice for the employee.


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