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Guide To Hostile Work Environment Laws in California


Dealing with a hostile work environment can make every day challenging, as you face unwelcome behavior that disrupts your ability to work effectively. If you are in a malicious and hostile workplace, it can have devastating effects on your mental health and potentially cause you to lose your job.

In California, there are legal protections for workers who have been affected by hostile workplaces. This means you can take action to protect yourself from discrimination or harassment at work, including filing an official complaint with the state.

Get to know your protections regarding a hostile work environment and how a California employment lawyer can help you file a complaint to safeguard your job and help you get compensation for damages.

What is Considered a Hostile Work Environment in California?

In California, a hostile work environment is created by behaviors that are so severe or pervasive that they alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive work atmosphere. This includes discrimination, harassment, or any unwelcome conduct based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and other protected characteristics under Section 12940(j) of the California Government Code.

A hostile environment is any workplace culture where there is a pattern of behavior that makes it difficult for an employee to perform their job duties. Examples of hostile work environments include:

  • Severe or repeated verbal abuse. Usage of derogatory names, slurs, threats, or abusive language.
  • Physical harassment. Unwanted or unsolicited touching, blocking of movement, or physical assault.
  • Sexual harassment. Unwelcome verbal advances, sexual favor requests, and sexual acts of physical harassment.
  • Exclusion of individuals. Isolating employees or individuals from professional opportunities, excluding them from meetings, or barring them from workplace activities.
  • Intimidation and bullying. Threatening behavior, harassing emails or chat messages, work sabotage, or disparaging social media posts aimed at another employee.
  • Environmental harassment. Using poor or distracting lighting, abusing A/C or heating controls, or generating unpleasant noise to harass employees or create a generally uncomfortable work environment.

What Are Your Rights Regarding a Hostile Working Environment?

California offers legal protection against a hostile workplace under both federal and state toxic work environment laws. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act mandate that employers maintain acceptable work conditions, including ensuring employees do not harass or abuse other employees.

This means that California employers or similar entities may not harass employees, applicants, interns, volunteers, or contractors based on protected categories. The law also applies if another employee is responsible for creating a toxic work environment.

As an employee in the state, you have the following legal protections and rights:

  • Right to a safe work environment. All employees in California, from entry-level positions to executives and company officers, have the right to work in safe and agreeable conditions, free from harassment or discrimination.
  • Protections from discrimination and harassment. You have the right to protection against discrimination or harassment based on gender, religion, race, ethnicity, and other protected characteristics.
  • Right to file a hostile work environment claim. If you experience harassment or an abusive work environment, you have the right to report it to the proper authorities, such as the California Civil Rights Department (CRD).
  • Protection against retaliation. You have legal protections against retaliation for filing a complaint or participating in an investigation.

What To Do in a Hostile Work Environment?

If you experience workplace harassment, abuse, or other signs of a hostile work environment, you can take action to protect yourself. Take the following steps to document the activity and understand your rights:

  • Identify the type of abuse. Look for severe or consistent patterns of discrimination, harassment, or abuse, as defined in FEHA, to identify if what you’re experiencing is a violation of California workplace laws. If you’re unsure, consult an employment law attorney to review your case and advise you on the next possible steps.
  • Document evidence of hostility. Keep detailed records of hostile actions contributing to the abusive work environment. Start with a dedicated log or journal with the date, time, location, and a precise description of each incident, including the names of all involved individuals.
    Collect as much evidence to support each claim as possible, such as emails, messages, or video footage. Write down exact quotes from co-workers or management and ask anyone who witnessed the abuse if they are willing to provide their names, contact information, and their own account of the events.
  • Report to HR. Contact your workplace’s human resources (HR) department and provide a detailed account of the incidents you experienced. Use the evidence you’ve documented to support your claim. This allows your employer to address the situation and document the issue, which can work in your favor if the case escalates to a CRD investigation or lawsuit.
  • Report to CRD. If you continue experiencing the signs of a hostile workplace even after reporting to HR, or if reporting to HR would put you at risk, proceed to filing a claim against your employer with the CRD.
  • Seek legal advice. Consult a California employment law attorney who can help you understand your case, legal options, and potential compensation. An attorney can guide you through each step of the process, from dealing with your HR department and contacting the proper authorities.

How To File a Hostile Work Environment Complaint

Filing a hostile workplace complaint with the CRD is a straightforward process that helps you protect your rights and hold your employer accountable for employment law violations. To report a hostile work environment, take the following actions:

  • Gather necessary information and evidence. Before filing your complaint, compile specific facts about the incidents, including the name and contact information of the person or entity you believe discriminated against you, relevant documents or evidence, and any witnesses’ names and contact details.
  • Choose your filing method. File an intake form with the CRD using one of three methods: online through the Cal Civil Rights System (CCRS) by creating an account, by mail with a printable intake form, or by phone using the contact information on the CRD’s contact page.
  • Understand the timeline and requirements. For employment-related cases, file within three years from the date of the incident. For other cases, the filing deadline is one year. If intending to file a lawsuit directly, request a Right-to-Sue notice from the CRD.
  • Wait for CRD evaluation and next steps. After filing, the CRD will evaluate your intake form to determine if the allegations fall under the civil rights laws it enforces. If your complaint is accepted, CRD will prepare a formal complaint form for you to sign and return, which then gets sent to the alleged discriminator.

CRD has a cross-filing agreement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for cases violating state and federal law. This means that you don’t need to contact both. Filing a hostile work environment complaint with the CRD automatically files one with the EEOC as well.

Potential Outcomes of a Formal Complaint

After you file a complaint with the CRD, multiple outcomes are possible, depending on the specifics of your case, including:

  • Mediation services. The CRD will often offer mediation services between you and your employer to reach a mutually agreeable resolution and settle the matter.
  • Investigation and determination. If mediation is unsuccessful or does not occur, the CRD will independently investigate your claims and determine whether your civil rights were violated.
  • Dismissal. If there isn’t enough evidence to support your claim, the CRD will dismiss your claim. A California employment lawyer may be able to help you pursue compensation in civil court.
  • Corrective actions. If CRD investigators uncover enough evidence of civil rights violation, the agency can issue corrective actions, including a lawsuit on your behalf.
    You may also be able to request a Right to Sue notice from the CRD if you wish to pursue the matter in civil court independently. An employment law attorney can assist you during the process and represent your interests in court.


What is a Hostile Work Environment?

In California, a hostile work environment is a workplace culture where severe or pervasive acts of harassment against employees occur often and impact employees’ well-being and work performance. The nature of harassment must be related to protected classes, such as race, age, gender, sexual orientation, and other protected categories.

How To Document a Hostile Work Environment?

Create and maintain a detailed journal of every incident or act of harassment, and gather as much evidence regarding the incidents as possible. This can include communications, video, voice recordings, or company documents. When noting the incidents, include the date, time, location, and a description of the events, including the names and information of each person involved.

How To Report a Hostile Work Environment?

Contact your workplace’s HR department to attempt to resolve the issue internally. If mistreatment persists, contact the California Civil Rights Department and follow the steps in the CRD complaint process. Consult an experienced employment lawyer for additional guidance.

Protect Yourself From Hostile Work Environments

If you are the victim of abuse or harassment in a hostile work environment in California, seeking legal advice is critical to exercising your rights and recovering compensation. An experienced California employment lawyer can help you collect evidence, review the facts of your case, and determine if the hostile workplace violated your civil rights.

If you have a case, they can help you contact the proper authorities and recover the compensation you deserve for your stress, injuries, emotional damages, and other losses.


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