Main Categories of Sexual Harassment in California

Where You Need a Lawyer:

(This may not be the same place you live)

At No Cost! 

 How Do California Laws Define Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is defined under California laws as unwanted sexual advances or visual, verbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. This can include everything from unwanted comments and gestures to sexual assault. The two main types of sexual harassment recognized under California law are quid pro quo and hostile work environment sexual harassment.

What Does “Quid Pro Quo” Sexual Harassment Mean?

Quid pro quo, Latin for “this for that,” refers to situations where employment decisions or expectations are based on an employee’s willingness to submit to unwanted sexual advances.

Imagine Sarah, an accomplished mid-level manager at a well-known marketing firm in California. She has been with the company for five years and has consistently received positive performance reviews. She’s been eagerly eyeing a senior manager position that will soon be vacant due to a retirement. The promotion not only comes with prestige but also a significant pay raise and the chance to oversee pivotal projects.

One evening, after a company event, Sarah’s direct supervisor, Mr. Thompson, invites her for a drink to “discuss her future at the company.” At the bar, after some casual conversation, Mr. Thompson starts commenting on how attractive Sarah looks and how he’s surprised someone like her isn’t in a relationship. Sarah, trying to keep things professional, steers the conversation back to work and the upcoming senior manager position.

Mr. Thompson, with a suggestive smile, tells Sarah that he has significant influence over who gets the promotion. He goes on to imply that if Sarah spends a “special weekend” away with him, he could guarantee her the role. Sarah, feeling trapped, doesn’t give a direct response but instead mentions she needs to get home. Over the next few weeks, Sarah notices Mr. Thompson sending her inappropriate messages and repeatedly reminding her of the “offer” he made.

While the promotion is a golden opportunity for Sarah, she’s torn. If she speaks out, she risks potential retaliation or even not getting the promotion. On the other hand, complying with Mr. Thompson’s inappropriate advances goes against her values and would set a dangerous precedent.

This situation illustrates the complexity of quid pro quo sexual harassment. It’s not always a direct exchange. The nuances, such as implied benefits and the power dynamics at play, can make it a challenging situation to navigate. Sarah is faced with the dilemma of potential professional growth at the cost of personal and ethical compromise. The law recognizes these challenges and aims to protect individuals like Sarah from such compromising positions.

What Does “Hostile Work Environment” Sexual Harassment Mean?

Hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs when unwelcome comments or conduct based on sex unreasonably interfere with an employee’s work performance or create a hostile, intimidating, or offensive work environment. This doesn’t always have to be sexual in nature. Derogatory comments about a particular gender, for example, can also create a hostile work environment.

What Is “Non-Direct” Sexual Harassment?

Non-direct sexual harassment refers to instances where the harassment might not be directed at the victim but still affects them. An example is sexual harassment at work by non-employees.

Lena works as a front-desk receptionist for a prestigious hotel in downtown San Francisco.

Given the nature of her job, she frequently interacts with guests, vendors, and occasionally representatives from partnered businesses. Over the course of several months, Mr. Martinez, a representative from a major wine distributor that has a large contract with the hotel, starts visiting the premises more frequently.

Every time he visits, he makes it a point to engage Lena in conversation. At first, the conversations are casual, but soon they take an uncomfortable turn. Mr. Martinez begins to make comments about Lena’s appearance, often remarking on how her dress fits her or suggesting she’d look even better in something “a little less conservative.” On several occasions, he’s even tried to touch her hair or shoulders, remarking how “soft” she looks.

Lena, feeling uncomfortable and harassed, reports the incidents to her supervisor. The supervisor, fearing potential repercussions from the wine distributor, brushes off her concerns, suggesting she might be “misreading” Mr. Martinez’s friendliness. Lena is told to be “less sensitive” since maintaining good relations with the distributor is crucial for the hotel’s business.

Despite her initial complaint, Mr. Martinez’s inappropriate comments don’t cease. In fact, they become more frequent, and he starts sending her unwanted gifts with notes complimenting her beauty. On multiple occasions, he waits for her shift to end to “offer a ride home,” which Lena always declines.

The hotel management’s lack of action and their dismissal of Lena’s legitimate concerns place her in a persistently uncomfortable, even threatening, environment. This scenario exemplifies non-direct sexual harassment: the harasser isn’t an employee, but due to the employer’s inaction despite being aware of the situation, the workplace becomes a hostile environment for Lena. The law recognizes such instances, holding employers accountable for not addressing and stopping harassment, even if the perpetrator is not a direct employee.

What Other Types of Sexual Harassment Are Outlined by California Laws?

Aside from the main types mentioned, California law also considers actions like job favoritism based on sexual activity and retaliation against someone for resisting advances or reporting harassment as sexual harassment.

Job Favoritism Based on Sexual Activity

In some workplaces, the lines between professional achievements and personal relationships may blur. California law recognizes that job favoritism based on sexual relations can be a form of sexual harassment.

This type of harassment occurs when an employee receives preferential treatment, like promotions or bonuses, based on a sexual relationship with a superior. This creates an unfair work environment and fosters an atmosphere where other employees might feel pressured to enter into unwanted relationships to advance in their careers.

For instance, if a manager promotes an employee they’re intimately involved with over more qualified candidates without any justifiable professional reason, it constitutes job favoritism.

Retaliation for Resisting or Reporting

It’s not uncommon for people who resist unwanted advances or report inappropriate behavior to face backlash in the workplace. California law is stringent against such retaliatory actions. An employee who reports harassment should not have to fear demotion, unjustified negative performance reviews, or any other adverse job consequences. The state acknowledges the courage it takes to come forward and ensures that employees are protected from retaliatory actions.

False Sexual Harassment Claims

While the majority of sexual harassment claims are valid and rooted in real experiences, California law also recognizes the severity and implications of false sexual harassment claims. Such claims can severely damage the reputation and career of the accused. While these false claims are rare, when identified, they can have legal consequences for the accuser. The aim is not to deter victims from coming forward but to ensure the integrity of the reporting process.

How Do I File a Sexual Harassment Complaint in California?

If you believe you’ve been sexually harassed, you should first report the incident to your supervisor or HR department, following the procedures outlined in your company’s handbook. If internal reporting doesn’t result in a satisfactory response, or if the harassment continues and you can’t avoid the sexual harassment, you can file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), which will investigate the claim.

Should I Contact a California Lawyer if I Have Been Sexually Harassed in the Workplace?

Definitely, if you’ve faced sexual harassment in your workplace, it’s advisable to consult with an experienced California sexual harassment attorney. They can guide you through the complexities of your rights, the complaint process, and potential remedies available to you.

If you’re in need of legal representation or advice on this issue, don’t hesitate to reach out to a qualified attorney through LegalMatch.

Law Library Disclaimer


16 people have successfully posted their cases

Find a Lawyer