Victims’ Guide for Workplace Sexual Harassment in California
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Victims’ Guide for Workplace Sexual Harassment in California

Victims’ Guide for Workplace Sexual Harassment in California

Workers in California have strong protections against employer mistreatment, including sexual harassment. Sexual harassment laws in California make it illegal for anyone at work to make unwanted sexual advances or pressure you for sexual favors in exchange for benefits.

If you experience sexual harassment in the workplace, you can file a complaint with the state. Through the complaint process, you can hold the perpetrator accountable and seek compensation for the harm you’ve suffered.

This guide can help you identify what constitutes sexual harassment and how to report sexual harassment in the workplace with the help of an employment attorney to resolve your case and move forward.

What Constitutes Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace in California is a serious violation that can impact your personal dignity and ability to perform your job duties. Sexual harassment in California is broken down into two legal categories: quid pro quo and a hostile work environment.

Quid Pro Quo

Meaning “this is for that,” quid pro quo misconduct can be direct or indirect sexual harassment. It occurs when employment decisions such as promotions or raises are directly linked to an employee submitting to sexual advances. Examples of quid pro quo harassment can include:

  • Threatening job loss unless sexual favors are granted
  • Promising promotions in exchange for dates
  • Offering bonuses for sexual activity
  • Conditioning job training on sexual cooperation
  • Linking performance reviews to sexual reciprocation
  • Assigning preferable shifts or duties in return for sexual favors

Hostile Work Environment

This form of sexual harassment happens when unwelcome sexual conduct becomes pervasive or severe, creating an intimidating and offensive place to work. This behavior can lead to a decrease in work performance and well-being, as you feel increasingly unsafe or stressed in your work environment.

Examples of a hostile work environment include:

  • Making unwelcome sexual comments or jokes
  • Displaying sexually explicit posters or calendars
  • Sending or sharing sexually suggestive emails or messages
  • Engaging in inappropriate touching or gestures
  • Repeatedly asking for dates despite being told no
  • Spreading sexual rumors about colleagues

What are the Employer’s Responsibilities?

The primary California law that protects workers from sexual harassment is the Fair Employment and Housing Act. Under this law, you have a right to expect a work environment free from any type of sexual harassment, direct or implied. If an employer perpetrates this behavior or fails to address known harassment by its employees, you have the right to sue for sexual harassment.

California legislation also puts special requirements on employers to address and prevent workplace sexual harassment:

  • Written anti-harassment policy. In California, every employer needs to have a detailed written policy against harassment that follows specific rules set by FEHA regulations. This policy should list all groups protected under the law, clearly explain what kind of behavior is disallowed, and describe how employees can report harassment. All employees must receive a copy of the policy in their language if necessary.
  • Sexual harassment training. California sexual harassment laws require employers with five or more workers to provide sexual harassment training to all workers – two hours for supervisors and one hour for non-supervisors, repeated every two years. New employees must receive this training within six months of starting, and it includes practical tips on preventing harassment and discrimination, with certification upon completion.

Common Perpetrators of Workplace Sexual Harassment

Workplace sexual harassment can come from various individuals within the professional environment, making it a pervasive issue. It’s not limited to one type of perpetrator; instead, it can include employer, co-worker, or third-party sexual harassment by the following:

  • Supervisors or bosses
  • Co-workers
  • Company owners
  • Clients or customers
  • Independent contractors

Depending on the circumstances of the abuse, you can hold your employer and a third-party individual responsible in a sexual harassment claim with the California Department of Civil Rights (CRD).

Which of the Following are Required to Prove Sexual Harassment?

A 2019 report found that 86% of women and 53% of men in California have experienced sexual harassment or assault, some of it likely in the workplace. While it happens often, it can be hard to prove, especially when suing for sexual harassment in court. To prove the legal elements of sexual harassment, you must consider the following:

Element Description Possible Evidence
Unwelcome Sexual Behavior The behavior must be sexual in nature, unwanted, and considered offensive by a reasonable person. Witness statements, recorded conversations, emails, text messages, inappropriate pictures, videos, messages, or explicit gifts.
Severity or Persuasiveness The harassment must be either severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile or abusive work environment. Documentation showing the frequency and duration of the harassment and its impact on job performance.
Causal Link  There must be a clear offer of a job benefit or a threat of a job detriment in exchange for sexual favors. Also requires proof of job benefits or employer retaliation based on acceptance or rejection of the sexual advances. Emails detailing the offer or threat, witness testimony of the offer, documentation of job changes following the incident, recorded meetings, or correspondence.
Effect on Victim The behavior must affect your employment, interfere with work performance or create an intimidating environment.  Medical records, psychological evaluations, changes in job performance or attendance.
Liability It must be shown that the employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take appropriate action (especially in third-party or co-worker cases).  Complaints to HR, emails to management, training records of supervisors.

Who Can Sue for Sexual Harassment at Work?

Anyone who experiences sexual harassment in a workplace setting can file a civil lawsuit, regardless of official employment status. This includes not only employees but also:

  • Job applicants
  • Volunteers
  • Unpaid interns
  • Contractors

Importantly, even if you have signed an employment contract that includes a waiver of your right to sue or requires arbitration, you still retain the ability to file a sexual harassment complaint in civil court. These protections ensure that all individuals have legal recourse to address and remedy instances of sexual harassment in professional environments.

How Much Can You Sue for Sexual Harassment

As part of a sexual harassment claim, you can file for several types of damages related to the mistreatment you experienced. These include compensatory damages, wrongful termination pay, and punitive damages:

  • Compensatory damages. These damages are intended to cover the direct losses you’ve incurred and restore your financial position to where it would have been if the harm hadn’t occurred. This includes compensation for lost wages, pain and suffering, mental anguish, harm to your well-being, and loss of reputation.
  • Miscellaneous reimbursement. This covers additional out-of-pocket expenses that arose due to the incident, such as attorneys’ fees, court costs, and fees for expert witnesses. These reimbursements ensure you are not financially burdened by the costs of seeking legal recourse for the sexual harassment you endured.
  • Wrongful termination pay. If you were terminated due to the harassment, you may be eligible for wrongful termination pay. This compensation is designed to cover the income and benefits you lost due to the unlawful dismissal.
  • Punitive damages. These are awarded in addition to compensatory damages and are designed to punish the defendant for malicious or oppressive behavior towards you. You must prove sexual harassment elements that show there was intentional harm (malice) or the abuse of power to create undue hardship (oppression). These are intended to deter the defendant and others from similar conduct in the future.

Statute of Limitations

If you experience sexual harassment at work, you must act quickly to preserve your right to legal action. The sexual harassment statute of limitations in California varies based on where you file your initial complaint. You have a few different options:

File with the CRD

The most common option for victims of sexual harassment is to file with the CRD. You have 3 years to report sexual harassment at work with the CRD. The process involves:

  1. Gathering all relevant documentation and evidence and filing the initial complaint. The easiest way to do this is through the online system, but you can also fill out and mail a paper form.
  2. Waiting for the CRD to conduct an investigation, after which they will either reject your claim, initiate mediation, or grant you a Right to Sue Letter.
  3. Participating in the dispute resolution process through the CRD and if not successful, continue as the plaintiff in the CRD’s lawsuit in court.

File With the EEOC

You can file your complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) instead of the CRD. This is the federal-level organization in charge of investigating cases of discrimination or sexual harassment.

You only have between 180 to 300 calendar days from the date of the harassment or discrimination. This deadline applies to each individual instance of harassment.

To file with the EEOC, you must enter a Charge of Discrimination. These must be done in person with an EEOC office near you. In cases where you have 60 or fewer days to file before the timeline expires, you may be able to file by mail.

File a Civil Lawsuit

If you prefer to bypass the CRD complaint process, you can work with your attorney to obtain an immediate Right to Sue Letter. This allows you to file a civil claim directly with the California courts.

Filing a direct civil suit can often be a faster way to resolve your case and may help you obtain a larger settlement. However, you have a much shorter statute of limitations – only 1 year from the date you were issued a Right to Sue letter from the CRD.

Get Fair Compensation for Sexual Harassment in California

Suffering sexual harassment by your employer, co-worker, or another party at your place of employment is unacceptable and illegal in California. Knowing your rights and how to file a complaint can help you stop the behavior, hold the responsible parties accountable, and receive a settlement for the harm it caused you.

Consider working with a skilled employment law attorney throughout the process. They can ensure you have appropriate documentation, file within the required timeframes, and represent your interests to get you the compensation you deserve.


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