It seems every time you turn on the news lately there is another story about sexual harassment in the workplace. This may leave you wondering, what exactly it is that constitutes sexual harassment under the law.
Sexual harassment in the workplace can take a variety of forms. Under federal law, there are two recognized forms of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and a hostile work environment. Quid pro quo harassment refers to a person of authority demanding sexual conduct as a condition for keeping a job or receiving a promotion, raise or some other benefit. Hostile work environment is a broader form of sexual harassment and includes unwelcome sexual conduct, sexual innuendo or sexual advances that create an offensive working environment.
Under California law, sexual harassment takes the form of unwanted sexual advances that may include many forms of offensive behavior.
Consider the situation where one female co-worker sends an email to another female co-worker with a sexually suggestive cartoon. Is this sexual harassment? Yes, in the state of California it could be. Visual conduct, such as sexually explicit gestures or the sharing of sexually explicit photos, videos or cartoons may all be considered unlawful harassment.
In addition, unwanted physical conduct and verbal remarks can also be found to be sexual harassment in the workplace. Catcalling, sexually derogatory slurs, sexual jokes or graphic sexual commentaries can all be forms of harassment. If a male co-worker approaches a female co-worker and tells her that she “looks very nice today,” under most circumstances that is probably not sexual harassment. However, if that male co-worker tells the female co-worker that her new suit shows off her curves, .this type of graphic sexual commentary could be deemed sexual harassment.
It is illegal for employers to fire or retaliate against employees who make claims of sexual harassment in the workplace. Employees who think they may have been victims of sexual harassment should consider consulting with an experienced attorney to determine the best course of action.
Source: California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, “Sexual harassment FAQs,” accessed Nov. 30, 2017