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Complete Guide To Sexual Harassment In California

Table of Contents


Workplace sexual harassment is an issue for Californians from all backgrounds.

Considering the percentage of people experiencing this behavior in our state is higher than the national average, it’s clear education and better safeguards are necessary to ensure everyone has a safe and secure workplace.

Sexual harassment can cause significant harm to individuals, may create a hostile work environment, and often goes unreported for fear of retaliation or simply not knowing what to do.

This guide aims to educate employees on what constitutes workplace sexual harassment, the laws and regulations to protect against it in California, and what to do if you or someone you know experiences it.

Part I: Defining workplace sexual harassment

What is workplace sexual harassment?

Workplace sexual harassment is a form of harassment that involves unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

Persistent cases of sexual harassment create a hostile or offensive work environment, which can interfere with an employee’s ability to perform their job duties.

Types of workplace sexual harassment

While there are many different examples of workplace sexual harassment, there are two main types.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment involves a person in a position of power who makes unwelcome sexual advances toward an employee and suggests that their job depends on accepting these advances, or that job benefits such as a promotion or positive performance review are conditioned upon their acceptance of advances.

Hostile work environments involve frequent, severe, and pervasive behavior that creates an intimidating, offensive or abusive environment.

This can include unwelcome sexual advances, comments, gestures, and sexually explicit language or displays.

Who commits sexual harassment?

Anyone in the workplace can commit sexual harassment, including supervisors, co-workers, contractors, or customers. It is not limited to one gender or position within an organization.

Anyone who engages in unwanted and inappropriate sexual behavior or language that makes another person feel uncomfortable or intimidated can be guilty of sexual harassment.

The psychology driving perpetrators of sexual harassment

Not every person who commits sexual harassment does it for the same reason, and it’s clear psychology plays a significant role for perpetrators.

Here are some of the most common reasons for sexual harassment in the workplace.

Power and control: Some individuals use sexual harassment to exert power and control over their victims. They may view their behavior as a way to dominate and intimidate others.

Insecurity: People who feel insecure and inadequate may use sexual harassment to feel more powerful and in control.

Misunderstanding social cues: Some individuals may not understand appropriate social cues and boundaries in the workplace.

Entitlement: Others may feel entitled to behave inappropriately due to their position of power or perceived status.

Hostile work environment: A toxic work environment can contribute to workplace sexual harassment. When individuals feel unsupported or undervalued, they may lash out inappropriately.

Mental health issues: Certain mental health conditions, such as narcissistic personality disorder, may increase the likelihood of engaging in workplace sexual harassment.

Who are the victims of sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a pervasive issue that can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, race, or income.

Studies show that women are more likely to experience sexual harassment at work, but men and people of all genders can also be targets.

Additionally, people who are part of marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ+ individuals, people of color, and people with disabilities, may be at an increased risk of experiencing sexual harassment.

How sexual harassment affects victims

Sexual harassment has many immediate and long-term effects on victims that can impair their productivity and mental health.

Here are some ways workplace sexual harassment can affect victims:

  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, and digestive issues
  • Mental health issues, such as anxiety, emotional distress, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Decreased job performance and productivity
  • Loss of self-esteem and confidence
  • Fear of being alone with their harasser or other colleagues
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Strained relationships with coworkers and supervisors
  • Loss of motivation and passion for their job
  • Difficulty sleeping and nightmares
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

Examples of unlawful sexual harassment

Sexual harassment can take many forms, and it’s crucial to be aware of the different ways it can occur to recognize and prevent it.

Here are some common examples of sexual harassment:

  • Making derogatory comments or sexual jokes, even if meant to be humorous
  • Displaying offensive or pornographic images
  • Any unwanted physical contact
  • Making unwelcome remarks about physical appearance, body parts, sexual orientation, or gender identity
  • Using online platforms such as email and social media to send offensive messages or pictures
  • Creating an atmosphere of hostility or intimidation for an employee due to their gender or sexual orientation
  • Taking adverse action against an employee who has complained about sexual harassment
  • Firing an employee due to their complaints of sexual harassment

Part II: Legal protections from workplace sexual harassment

How are Californians protected against workplace sexual harassment?

Californians have several state and federal regulations protecting them from unwanted sexual advances, harassment, and discrimination.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws related to workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment. Employees who face sexual harassment can file a complaint with the EEOC within 180 days of an incident of sexual harassment.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination based on sex. This includes sexual harassment, which is considered a form of sex discrimination.

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act

The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) is a California law that protects residents from discrimination and harassment. This act explicitly prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace and provides several protections to affected employees. FEHA requires employers to take prompt and effective actions to prevent and address harassment, and offers legal remedies to affected employees who have been subjected to harassment or discrimination.

What are an employer’s obligations to end sexual harassment?

California businesses are required to take the following steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • Provide training on sexual harassment prevention to all employees
  • Develop and distribute a written policy on sexual harassment
  • Investigate all complaints of sexual harassment promptly and thoroughly
  • Take appropriate corrective action when harassment has occurred
  • Maintain confidentiality throughout the investigation

Part III: Protecting yourself from workplace sexual harassment

What to do if you experience sexual harassment

If you have been the victim of sexual harassment, the best thing you can do is report the incident to human resources and document your experience.

This includes writing down precisely what happened, the date and time of the incident, and any conversations or emails that occurred during or after the incident.

If HR doesn’t investigate your claims in good faith, It’s essential to seek legal advice from an attorney specializing in sexual harassment cases. The attorney can help victims understand their rights and seek appropriate justice for the harassment.

What not to do if you have been sexually harassed

Dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace can be challenging to process and can easily overwhelm victims.

While there’s no exhaustive list of how employees should cope with unwanted sexual behavior at work, here are eight examples of what you should not do if it happens to you:

  • Don’t blame yourself or feel guilty.
  • Don’t ignore or minimize the situation.
  • Don’t retaliate or confront the harasser alone.
  • Don’t quit your job without seeking legal advice.
  • Don’t hesitate to report the incident to HR or higher authorities.
  • Don’t discuss the incident with unauthorized persons.
  • Don’t sign any document without understanding the legal implications.
  • Don’t assume that you are alone or that a sexual harassment attorney can’t help you.

It can be easy to have knee-jerk reactions to incidents of sexual harassment, but taking measured steps during and after an encounter that makes you uncomfortable will help you find the best solution to your problem.

Part IV: Conclusion

Sometimes it can feel impossible to handle sexual harassment claims on your own. This is especially true if the harassment has reached a level where you need legal representation to find relief.

If you find yourself in this position, an experienced sexual harassment attorney can help you file a lawsuit, provide legal advice and support throughout the legal process, and gather evidence to build a strong case.

Additionally, they can negotiate a settlement, advocate for your rights, and provide guidance throughout the process.

If you’ve experienced workplace sexual harassment and need legal representation, contact our experienced attorneys at Makarem & Associates to schedule a consultation.


Am I being sexually harassed at work?

Suppose you are experiencing unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. In that case, you may be a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace. It is essential to document the incidents and seek advice from an attorney familiar with sexual harassment cases.

What should I do if I am sexually harassed at work?

Documenting the incidents and filing a formal complaint with your HR department is essential. Additionally, speak with colleagues who may have witnessed the harassment and seek advice from an attorney who is familiar with sexual harassment cases. Lastly, contact trusted friends and family for their support and guidance.

What should I do if my manager sexually harassed me?

Suppose you’re the victim of sexual harassment by a manager or supervisor. In that case, it’s essential to document the incidents and seek advice from an attorney familiar with sexual harassment cases. Additionally, speak with colleagues who may have witnessed the harassment and file a formal complaint with your HR department. Lastly, do not forget to contact trusted friends and family for their support and guidance. The power imbalance between a supervisor and an employee should be considered when considering the legal repercussions of such harassment.

Who is responsible for sexual harassment in California?

Under state law, all people responsible for the harassing conduct may be held liable for it. That includes both the individual who harassed you, whether they were your supervisor or not. Your employer can also be held liable for the harassment, because they are responsible for the actions of their employees or any agents acting on their behalf.