Many California companies have established strict policies against workplace harassment. It is critical for employers in the state to tell their employees that harassment is unacceptable in the workplace and in any work-related setting outside the workplace, such as during business trips, business meetings and business-related social events (such as holiday parties or company picnics). Under California law, sexual harassment is illegal, as is harassment based on race, color, religion, national origin, age, medical condition, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic or activity protected by law.
Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an employee is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting that employee, or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment, even if there are no tangible or economic job consequences.
Types of Workplace Harassment
The term “sexual harassment” includes many forms of offensive behavior. Here is a partial list of conduct that may constitute sexual harassment:
- sexual advances
- offering employment benefits in exchange for sexual favors
- verbal conduct including derogatory comments, epithets, slurs. or jokes that are either gender-based or of a sexual nature
- visual conduct including leering, sexual gestures, or the display of sexually suggestive objects, pictures, or cartoons
- physical conduct including touching, assaulting, or impeding another’s movement, and
- gender-based harassment, including harassment by someone of the same sex as the victim
Harassment in California companies usually extends to any verbal, visual or physical conduct that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an employee, because of the employee's protected characteristic or activity, that (1) has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment, (2) has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with the employee's work performance, and/or (3) otherwise adversely affects the employee's employment opportunities.
When is Sexual Conduct Considered Harassment?
Sexual conduct is considered harassment only when it is “unwelcome.” This inquiry often involves an assessment of whether the recipient made it known that the conduct was unwelcome. If you are subjected to unwelcome sexual conduct, therefore, you are encouraged (1) to inform the perpetrator that you find the conduct offensive and you want it to stop, and/or (2) to initiate any internal complaint procedures available under your employer’s policies and procedures or employee handbook.
Sexual harassment is considered unlawful sex discrimination in violation of applicable federal and state law, including Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. It also is unlawful to retaliate against an employee because the employee has complained about harassment or participated in an investigation, proceeding or hearing based on such a complaint. Retaliation against an individual for reporting harassment or for participating in an investigation of a claim of harassment is a serious violation of this policy and, like harassment itself, can give rise to substantial lawsuits against California employers.
If you think that you may be a victim of harassment, contact an employment law attorney right away to discuss your legal options.