Navigating Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

February 27, 2022

California Bay Area employees (and workers across the nation) have the right to work environments that make them feel competent, confident, and safe in their daily work routines and long-term career growth and development journeys. In the workplace, illegal activities such as sexual harassment and sexual assault can be detrimental to employee performance and become a real threat to physical, emotional, and mental welfare. Following unwanted and inappropriate attention at work or if you have been a victim of sexual harassment, knowing what to do and who to turn to can be overwhelming and challenging.

How to Recognize and Act Against Sexual Harassment

Many victims feel intimidated or powerless towards their harasser; thus, many incidents of sexual harassment go unpunished. Abusers gradually become increasingly more forward, aggressive, and bold as time passes. As a result, victims of sexual harassment are often afraid to report the harassment they've suffered for fear of retribution or even retaliation. All employees should educate themselves on the various forms of sexual harassment and know when and how to take action.

Note: Documentation is critical. The moment an employee senses inappropriate actions and behavior, they should begin documenting the events.

Sexual harassment cases are all unique, and what you should do will depend on the circumstances of your situation. To decide how to respond to sexual harassment at work, you must first understand what sexual harassment is and the forms it can take.

Sexual Harassment in California Workplaces

The term sexual harassment covers unwanted sexual advances, verbal or physical acts of a sexual nature, and actions that create a hostile, harassing, or intimidating work environment based on an employee's gender. Under California law, offensive conduct does not necessarily need to be motivated by sexual desire but instead based on an employee's sex or gender identity, sexual orientation, or medical conditions. The term includes a wide range of forms of offensive behavior, including gender-based harassment of co-workers of the same sex and creating hostile working environments.

The Two Major Forms of Sexual Harassment

Quid Pro Quo Harassment: The Latin phrase "quid pro quo" refers to a swap, "this for that." The perpetrator uses sexual harassment to gain or maintain power over their victim, just like with other forms of harassment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment is executed when an employment opportunity, compensation, hourly wage increase, benefits, a title, salary, promotion, or other advantageous options are contingent upon going along with unwanted or unwelcome sexual advances. Regardless of whether the harassment is straightforward or implied, it is illegal.

In California, an employer is strictly liable for incidents that involve supervisors, managers, or other higher-level employees.

Hostile Work Environment: Sexual harassment that leads to hostile work environments is one in which the victim is subjected to abuse or harassment in their work environment. A "hostile work environment" form of harassment must be so severe or pervasive that any reasonable employee in the victim's position would consider the behavior hostile, intimidating, or abusive.

Furthermore, hurtful behavior is motivated by a legally protected characteristic, attribute, group, or class. Protected characteristics and classes can be race, sex, religion, age, gender identity, mental or physical disability, marital status, and more. Hostile work environments can be those subjected to harassment motivated by hate or abuse toward someone with a protected trait, harassment aimed at an individual's race or religion (use of derogatory terms or racial slurs), or as is the focus here, sexual harassment.

When an employee is sexually harassed, working environments can become exceedingly uncomfortable. Employers, supervisors, or co-workers who make victims feel extremely uncomfortable may be responsible for such harassment. Additionally, it is possible to harass someone without requesting sexual favors like showing inappropriate photos or saying crude and vulgar statements to victims.

What to do if you have been a victim of sexual harassment

If you have been the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, you should report the incident to your human resources representative and be sure to do so in writing. Submitting reports in writing and organizing any other related documentation will assist in proving the extent of the harassment later. Taking note of any witnesses and potentially getting written statements from them can also help you as a victim. Many times, victims will quit their job before reporting the sexual harassment. Doing so may mean losing out on lost wages and victims who leave before reporting may find it harder to prove their employer was aware of any sexual harassment.

On the other hand, if your employer is attempting to retaliate against you for reporting, know this is illegal, and you should seek to speak with a sexual harassment attorney. If you are unsure of how to report sexual harassment, have any other related questions, or wish to explore the legal options moving forward, an experienced San Francisco sexual harassment attorney will be of exceptional service to you.


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