California Sexual Harassment Law: An Overview of Your Rights

In 2020, 23,898 Californians reported civil rights violations, including sexual harassment. Despite its pervasiveness, sexual harassment is against the law.

If you or a loved one has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, you deserve to have a dedicated, relentless legal team by your side. Our California sexual harassment lawyers understand the strength it takes to stand up to sexual harassment, and you don’t have to go through it alone. On this page, we have provided a summary of California sexual harassment law.

This information should help you understand your rights and the steps to defend yourself and your workplace.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us online or call (818) 340-5400 today for help.

What Are the California Sexual Harassment Laws?

Both federal and state laws classify sexual harassment as employment discrimination.

Federal law, specifically Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits an employer with 15 or more employees from discriminating based on sex. The Civil Rights Act created the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and tasked the agency with enforcing civil rights violations. In doing so, the EEOC declared “harassment on the basis of sex” to be a violation of section 703 of title VII.

In California, the legal definition of sexual harassment is found in California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The FEHA prohibits harassment “because of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status.”

Therefore, compared to Title VII, FEHA provides broader protections and is more favorable to employees. Further, FEHA applies to all private, state, and local employers.

Like the EEOC, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) investigates and prosecutes California sexual harassment and other complaints of discrimination in the state.

What Is Sexual Harassment in California?

Sexual harassment is a broad term that encompasses a wide range of unwanted verbal and physical sexual attention. When it affects your work, sexual harassment includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”

Therefore, the four main categories of sexual harassment in California are:

  • Physical harassment,
  • Verbal harassment or written harassment,
  • Visual harassment, and
  • Sexual advances.

The harasser can be of any gender and have any relationship to the victim, including a direct or indirect manager, coworker, teacher, peer, or colleague. Both federal and state laws define two types of sexual harassment in the workplace: “quid pro quo” and “hostile work environment.”

Quid Pro Quo

“Quid pro quo” means “this for that” or “something for something.” Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when submission to sexual conduct becomes a condition of employment or is used as the basis for employment decisions.

This type of harassment may appear as an offer or a threat. Quid pro quo harassment is considered severe enough that a single incident may be a civil rights violation.

Hostile Work Environment

Harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

To be unlawful, the harassment must be both subjectively and objectively offensive. Unless the type of harassment is severe or physical, courts generally require that the sexual harassment occurrences be more than isolated or sporadic.

However, one severe, physical act can be sexual harassment, and many minor incidents could combine to be harassment.

The Fair Employment and Housing Act: CA Sexual Harassment Law

Under the FEHA and the DFEH’s regulations, every employer must take reasonable steps to prevent and correct discriminatory and harassing conduct. To comply with its affirmative duty to create a workplace free of discrimination, an employer must have a written harassment, discrimination, and retaliation prevention policy. The employer must communicate the policy to all employees.

The policy should explain the complaint process, under which the employer will:

  • Promptly handle the complaint;
  • Provide confidentiality;
  • Respond to the complainant;
  • Make sure that qualified personnel investigate the complaint;
  • Document the investigation and keep track of the complaint’s progress and outcome.
  • Take the necessary corrective actions; and 
  • Ensure a timely closure.

Additionally, the policy must:

  • Include an option for employees to report incidents to people other than their supervisor (i.e., through a complaint hotline, an ombudsperson, or directly to DFEH or the EEOC);
  • Instruct supervisors to forward harassment complaints to a designated representative, such as a human resources officer;
  • Indicate that the employer will conduct a fair, timely, and thorough investigation that affords all parties due process;
  • Indicate that based on the evidence gathered, the investigation will reach reasonable conclusions;
  • Explain that while the employer will make every effort to maintain confidentiality, the investigation may not be entirely confidential;
  • Declare that if the investigation uncovers evidence of misconduct, the employer will take appropriate corrective action; and
  • Make it clear that employees will not face retaliation if they file a complaint or participate in a workplace investigation.

Finally, an employer with 50 or more employees must provide training on California sexual harassment laws to all supervisory employees within the first six months of the person’s assumption of supervisory duties. Supervisors must repeat the training at least once every two years. Although a violation of these requirements isn’t conclusive evidence of sexual harassment, it will hurt an employer’s chances of defending themselves against a harassment claim.

What Are My Rights Under the Sexual Harassment Law In California?

You have a right to work in a place free of discrimination and harassment. However, to defend your rights, you will have to speak out. Here are the steps we recommend if you have encountered severe or pervasive sexual harassment in California:

Step 1: Report the Incident to Your Employer

First, report the harassment to your employer. You should follow the employer’s complaint process as closely as possible. Describe the situation thoroughly. Include the names of witnesses or any others you told about the harassment. Keep a copy of your initial complaint and any subsequent communications regarding the complaint. Your employer must take immediate action on your complaint or face legal repercussions.

Step 2: Report the Sexual Harassment to the Appropriate California Agency

If your employer doesn’t respond to your complaint, you can file with DFEH or EEOC. The agency will evaluate your complaint and decide whether to investigate it. Then your employer must respond, and DFEH or EEOC will review the response. If the response is unsatisfactory, the agency will forward your case to the legal division for mediation and possibly a lawsuit.

Do not wait too long before taking action

According to California law, you must file a complaint with DFEH within one year of the last act of harassment or retaliation. There are also time constraints for filing a complaint with the EEOC. In most cases, the EEOC time limit for filing a complaint is 180 days (six months). However, because California has an anti-discrimination law, the federal EEOC time limit for filing a sexual harassment complaint in California is extended to 300 days. 

Step 3: Get Legal Help

When it’s time to file a complaint against sexual harassment, you need an attorney you can feel comfortable with. At Boucher LLP, we care deeply for our clients and treat them like we would our family.

When you call (818) 340-5400 or send our attorneys an online message, we will help you understand your options, file a complaint, determine what evidence is relevant, and decide whether to file a lawsuit. We dedicate our work to sharing your story with the employment discrimination enforcement agency or a jury.

Boucher LLP is here to help you stand up for your rights under California sexual harassment law.