What Constitutes Sexual Harassment at Work?

Posted by Sessions & Kimball |

Everyone knows that sexual harassment is illegal. With the recent scandal coming out of UC Berkeley, the persistent problem of sexual harassment is once again on everyone’s radar. Yet many people aren’t sure of what exactly constitutes actionable sexual harassment.

By definition, sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favors, or other physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature. Workplace sexual harassment occurs when such activity interferes with a person’s job performance or creates a hostile, offensive, or intimidating work environment.

Laws Prohibiting Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is illegal under both California and federal law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes sexual harassment as a form of illegal sex discrimination on a federal level. Title VII specifically prohibits such discrimination in relation to employment. California similarly prohibits sexual harassment on the state level under the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

These statutes don’t simply prohibit harassment. They also prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who claim they have been sexually harassed. Workplace retaliation is a significant problem. Therefore, it’s important to document all instances of inappropriate behavior, as well as any retaliatory measures or punishments that you feel you’ve been subjected to in response to having the courage to speak up.

Types of Sexual Harassment

California and federal law recognize two types of workplace sexual harassment: 1) quid pro quo, and 2) hostile work environment.

Quid Pro Quo

Quid pro quo harassment involves a person of authority demanding that a subordinate accept unwanted sexual advances or other unwanted sexual conduct in exchange for receiving or keeping a job benefit, such as a promotion or a raise. For quid pro quo harassment, a single instance of improper conduct is sufficient to support a claim.

Hostile Work Environment

Hostile work environment harassment, by comparison, involves unwelcome conduct that is based on sex, and is pervasive or severe enough to create an offensive or abusive working environment. Unlike quid pro quo harassment, a single instance of harassment will likely not be enough to serve as the basis for a claim. Instead, a pattern of improper behavior is usually required to prove the existence of a hostile work environment.

Hostile work environment sexual harassment can take many forms. Some of the most common include:

  • Offensive and persistent sexual jokes
  • Inappropriate or rude sexual comments
  • Unwanted sexual advances or propositions
  • Inappropriate touching
  • Offensive material or objects posted in the office, such as an email containing a link to an inappropriate website
  • Leering, making sexual gestures, displaying suggestive objects or pictures, cartoons or posters
  • Graphic verbal commentaries about an individual’s body, sexually degrading words used to describe an individual, suggestive or obscene letters, notes or invitations

While many people imagine women being the victims of workplace sexual harassment, and many women have indeed endured such inappropriate behavior, it’s important to remember that it can happen to men as well. Whether you’re male or female, if you feel you’ve been harassed, it’s important to say something.

How an Experienced Sexual Harassment Attorney Can Help

At Sessions & Kimball LLP, we are well versed in matters involving workplace sexual harassment. We understand that the prospect of bringing a workplace sexual harassment claim can be daunting. As Orange County’s largest firm exclusively devoted to employee rights, we have the resources and skills to guide you through the process and ensure that you get the maximum recovery available.

Speaking up may be the hardest thing to do, but it is the first step in getting you the justice you deserve. Call today for a free, confidential consultation.