What California Laws Cover Sexual Harassment?

California has strict employment laws that provide employees with a wide range of rights in the workforce. One such right is to be free from sexual harassment – of any type – while at work. The Time’s Up movement in recent years drew attention to the fact that sexual harassment is still a major problem in our work environments, but which laws are the ones that protect California employees from this type of conduct?

Knowing that you were sexually harassed at work and knowing what legal action you can take are two different things. You should never hesitate to discuss your concerns about your workplace experiences with a sexual harassment attorney. It is our job to know the law and advise you of your rights in your specific situation.

Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)

California’s primary anti-discrimination law is the Fair Employment and Housing Act, also known as FEHA. This law prohibits discrimination against employees within the state based on many characteristics, including sex and gender. Harassment is a form of discrimination, so FEHA further prohibits harassment at work based on sex and gender (as well as other protected factors).

Specifically, harassment is prohibited based on any of the following, which relate to an employee’s “sex:”

  • Sex
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender expression, identity, or nonconformity
  • Pregnancy

If conduct occurs that constitutes unlawful harassment under California law based on any of the above, the employee can hold their employer liable and seek various types of legal relief.

What is Unlawful Sexual Harassment?

Some people might hear a sexually offensive joke or comment at work and accuse their employer of sexual harassment, but this is generally not the case. Instead, there are two specific types of sexual harassment under the law in California.

Quid pro quo

This type of harassment occurs between an employee and a boss or another authority figure who has control over the circumstances of the employee’s job. The authority figure makes sexual advances or requests sexual conduct from the employee, and makes their job a condition of their response.

This can include offering job benefits (such as promotions, pay raises, or similar benefits) if the employee engages in sexual conduct or can involve threatening adverse employment action (including termination or holding back their career) if the employee refuses the sexual advances.

When quid pro quo harassment happens, an employing company is automatically liable, and it does not have to have notice of the harassment to be liable to the employee.

Hostile work environment

For this type of harassment, the employer does have to have notice and have the opportunity to stop the conduct before liability kicks in. Hostile work environment harassment involves conduct by any co-worker or colleague – not necessarily a superior – that is pervasive or offensive enough that a reasonable employee would not tolerate the work environment.

The employee needs to report their concerns and the employer has the opportunity to take steps to stop it. If the conduct continues, the employer can be liable for sexual harassment under California law.

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