Fred Geonetta
By: Fred Geonetta

How Does California Law Define Workplace Sexual Harassment?

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) oversees the state’s sexual harassment laws. FEHA defines sexual harassment in the workforce as acts of unwelcome sexual advances or unwelcome conduct of a visual, verbal, or physical nature. It views sexual harassment as sex discrimination, which creates ‘an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.’

California law states that the offensive conduct must be of a sexual nature but does not need to be motivated by sexual desire. Workplace sexual harassment may be based on a worker’s perceived or actual gender identity, perceived or actual sexual orientation, and perceived or actual pregnancy or other medical conditions.

How Common is Sexual Harassment in a Place of Work?

In any given year, approximately 5,000 people file a workplace sexual harassment claim in California alone. The scary thing is that the number of actual incidents of workplace sexual harassment is actually much higher, as many victims fear the repercussions of filing a report. A 2016 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report found that most workplace harassment goes unreported. Research done by Lilia M. Cortina and Jennifer L. Berdahl suggests that 90% of individuals who claim to have suffered harassment in the workforce never made a formal complaint. So, how common is sexual harassment in the workforce? It’s impossible to say for sure, but it is undoubtedly more frequent than any of us would like to imagine.

Nearly 40% of all women in the workforce claim that they’ve experienced unwanted sexual advances, sexual coercion, or generally crude behavior that made them feel uncomfortable. Men experience sexual harassment, too, though we believe it to be in dramatically lesser numbers. That being said, men are more reluctant to file claims than women are, so it’s hard to say for sure how bad the problems really are.

Many employees seek new job assignments or even quit their jobs instead of trusting their superiors to keep people in line. Sometimes, most unfortunately, the superiors are the ones responsible for the harassment. The power imbalance can make it difficult for a victim to find help when their own superiors are the ones making the work environment hostile.

What Are Examples of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Generally speaking, the more extreme the example of sexual harassment, the rarer it is likely to be. Conversely, the tamer (though by no means excusable) the harassment, the more common it is to see in the workplace.

Common examples of workplace sexual harassment include the following: 

  • Catcalls and wolf whistles. 
  • Constructive discharge – an employee being harassed, threatened, or verbally abused so much that they are forced to quit.
  • Fake repeated ‘accidental’ touching of a person’s private parts. 
  • Imitating sexual activity in the workplace using their body, mouth, or hands.
  • Inappropriate comments.
  • Leering and staring.
  • Lewd gestures.
  • Making constant innuendos and not listening to directives to stop this behavior. 
  • Offensive objects with a sexual nature. 
  • Pervasive flirting and an inability to take ‘no’ for an answer. 
  • Physical touching or groping of a sexual nature.
  • Quid pro quo sexual harassment – an employer offers career advancement to their employee in return for a date, sex, or other sexual favors. 
  • Requests for sexual favors.
  • Sexually explicit jokes, emails, texts, memes, posters, calendars, photos, and videos. 
  • Sharing pornographic content. 
  • Teasing that goes beyond rude, crude, or casual humor, creating a hostile work environment.
  • Unwanted conversation about your gender, your genitalia, and other body parts. 
  • Unwanted hugs, kisses, strokes, or hand-holding. 
  • Unwanted neck or shoulder massages.
  • Unwelcome sexual advancements.
  • Using derogatory phrases about you or people of your gender identity. 
  • Verbal harassment.

What Can You Do if You’ve Been a Victim of Sexual Harassment at Work?

Firstly, familiarize yourself with your company’s sexual harassment policy. (It may be a red flag if they do not have such a policy.) Read the policy and follow the steps to take action. This may include putting complaints into writing and keeping records about each incident. Try to write down your accounts shortly after they occur (though only in a safe environment) to keep your memory fresh.

Inform your employer and HR about the harassment according to the directives found in the company’s sexual harassment policies. Then, file a complaint with the proper state or federal agency. We recommend the EEOC and the California Civil Rights Department (CRD).

At any point during the process, we also recommend reaching out to our law firm to discuss your case. We can assist you in filing your complaints and make things easier when it comes time to take the intimidating step of speaking to your employers. Our lawyers offer a free case evaluation to all prospective new clients, so please contact us if you have any questions or concerns.

Schedule a Free Consultation with Experienced Employment Law Attorneys Today

You shouldn’t have to put up with sexual harassment of any kind. As your legal representation, our experienced lawyers can help you hold the liable parties accountable. You shouldn’t be the one whose job and livelihood are threatened because other people are breaking the law. You should be allowed the right to work in a safe and affirming environment, not somewhere hostile and discriminatory.

Our legal team has years of experience representing clients in several types of harassment cases and employment law legal matters. To discuss our legal services, please get in touch with our staff at one of our law offices. You may contact us at our Oakland office at 510-254-3777 or at our San Francisco office at 415-433-4589.

Fred Geonetta
By: Fred Geonetta

Frederick J. Geonetta is a graduate of the University of California, Hastings College of Law. His legal practice is entirely devoted to litigation. Mr. Geonetta has spent the past 25 years in private practice representing both plaintiffs and defendants who have been harmed or wronged by the actions of others or who have been falsely accused of causing harm to others. He represents clients across the U.S. and international clients who seek U.S. legal advice or representation.