According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. This specific form of sex discrimination involves:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances;
  • Requests for sexual favors; and
  • Various other verbal or physical actions that are of a sexual nature.

All of these examples are considered to be illegal. Additionally, sexual harassment may refer to any offensive comments or remarks that are made about a person’s gender. However, this is more commonly associated with gender discrimination.

When sexual harassment occurs in a work setting, it is also considered to be a form of employment discrimination. The offensive conduct may take place either between a supervisor and an employee, or between two colleagues at the office. Generally speaking, there are two main types of sexual harassment claims in the workplace. The first is known as “quid pro quo” sexual harassment, and the second is known as “hostile work environment” sexual harassment.

Although state laws vary regarding sexual harassment, the key factor in identifying sexual harassment is the nature of the offending party or parties’ behavior. California law prohibits any form of sexual harassment in all types of employment settings. Additionally, all employers are required to train supervisors regarding how to prevent and handle sexual harassment. Workplace sexual harassment is defined under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

What Are Some of Examples of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

As previously mentioned, there are two primary types of sexual harassment claims that can occur in a work setting. The first of which is referred to a quid pro quo sexual harassment. An example of “quid pro quo” sexual harassment would be when a supervisor, or an employee of higher rank. asks a lower-ranked employee to do some sort of sexual favor for them. In exchange for this sexual favor, the supervisor will promise the employee some kind of work benefit or perk. The most common examples of such benefits would be receiving extra pay or getting a promotion.

The second category of sexual harassment claims that can occur in a work setting is “hostile work environment” sexual harassment. An example of this would be when someone working at the business continues to make threats or repeated sexual advances towards another employee. This continued behavior is directly responsible for making them so uncomfortable that it impacts their work performance or attendance.

It is important to understand the differences between these two main categories of workplace sexual harassment. The main difference is that quid pro quo must involve a higher-ranking employee than the person who is being harassed, while hostile work environment sexual harassment is focused more on the offensive conduct as opposed to who is behaving offensively. It is not uncommon for the workplace sexual harassment victim to experience both types of harassment simultaneously.

Another category that could be considered to be workplace sexual harassment is known as “non-direct” sexual harassment. This can happen in either of the above scenarios, but it occurs against another person who is not the originally intended victim. An example of this would be if a bystander witnesses their co-worker being sexually harassed, or is also offended by constantly being exposed to dirty remarks or “jokes”. That person may have a claim for “non-direct” sexual harassment. In some specific circumstances, it could qualify as “direct” sexual harassment instead.

What California Laws Protect Employees from Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) is one of the main federal laws that protects individuals from employment discrimination, including sexual harassment. The EEOC is responsible for enforcing any federal law that relates to sexual discrimination and harassment, partially by ensuring that employers follow the standards set out in Title VII. They will hold employers accountable if a claim has been filed.

However, it is important to note that Title VII only applies to employment agencies, unions, and companies that have fifteen or more employees. What this means is that if the business does not meet one of these criteria, a workplace sexual harassment victim would need to rely on state laws or company policies for protection.

Every state has some version of a statute in place prohibiting sexual harassment conduct in the workplace. Some states have statutes that explicitly state that it is illegal, while others have it listed as a category under their discrimination laws.

The Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) is a California statute which prohibits employment and housing discrimination. This statute applies to public and private employers, labor organizations and employment agencies. Under FEHA, harassment is prohibited in all workplaces, including those with fewer than five employees. 

The statute prohibits harassment based on a protected category against an employee, an applicant, an unpaid intern or volunteer, or a contractor. The Fair Employment and Housing Act and other civil rights laws in California are enforced by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”), which is the largest state civil rights agency in the country.

What Is a False Sexual Harassment Claim? What Rights Do the Falsely Accused Have?

A false sexual harassment claim is exactly as it sounds. One person falsely accuses another of sexual harassment, especially in the workplace. It is important to stop here and clarify that false sexual harassment claims are not as commonplace as legitimate sexual harassment claims. Although false claims should be taken seriously, they also should not detract from the fact that workplace sexual harassment is serious and occurs far too frequently.

When a person feels they are being sexually harassed in the workplace, they should begin by directly consulting with their offender if they feel safe enough to do so. Sometimes a person may not know when their behavior has offended someone; later, if they do not comply with a request to stop, it can be used as evidence to show that they were on notice that their actions made the victim uncomfortable.

If you are facing a false sexual harassment claim, you do have some rights. First of all, you have the right to a fair investigation of the claims being made. Your employer is obligated to investigate all claims of harassment. Unless the party accused of harassment admits to the offense, or the claimant confesses that their claim was false, it is up to the employer to determine how best to proceed. If you suffer damages from the false sexual harassment claim, you may also seek to file a private defamation lawsuit against the false accuser. 

Are There Any Defenses for Claims of Sexual Harassment Under California Laws?

There are a few specific defenses that a defendant might be able to assert against a claim for sexual harassment. These defenses may not necessarily dismiss the case; rather, they may be used to reduce the penalties received.

Most state statutes will provide their own version of the defenses available for sexual harassment in the workplace claims. However, the following are some of the more common defenses to claims of sexual harassment:

  • The defendant provides evidence showing that the victim’s claims are false;
  • The defendant can argue that the conduct did not meet the standard of sexual harassment specified under the law;
  • If the victim did not follow proper protocol by first filing with the EEOC, etc., the defendant may can use that fact as a defense;
  • If the EEOC failed to find anything during their investigation, such as repeated patterns of conduct, then their report may be used as evidence against the claim; or
  • If the defendant is not actually the person responsible for the sexual harassment behavior that ocurred, they can prove that someone else was the actual cause of it.

Do I Need a California Attorney If I Am Dealing with Sexual Harassment?

If you work in California and are facing sexual harassment of any kind, you should consult with a California employment attorney immediately. Whether you have been falsely accused of sexual harassment, are the victim of sexual harassment, or are an employer dealing with workplace sexual harassment, a local attorney will be key in your case. 

An experienced and local California employment attorney will be most knowledgeable in terms of your state’s laws regarding sexual harassment, and how those laws will affect the outcome of your case. An attorney can also represent you as needed in court, and inform you of any legal defenses that may be available, given the facts of your case.