How Does California Law Define Sexual Harassment?

Since the #MeToo movement became part of the national conversation in 2017, there’s been a heightened awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace. No employer wants to be the one that’s oblivious to serious incidents or a pervasive hostile atmosphere. At the same time, though, there’s a lot of fear around the topic, both at the individual employee level and at the organizational level. With societal norms changing, people don’t always trust themselves to know what could be considered harassing, and that can create a discomfort among colleagues that isn’t conducive to a happy, productive work environment.

The best antidote to that kind of fear is knowledge, starting with the legal definition of sexual harassment. Here’s what you need to know about how California law defines sexual harassment, the main categories of harassment, and the elements that must be present for a sexual harassment claim.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Under California law, sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, which includes any visual, verbal, or physical actions of a sexual nature, and actions that create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment based on an employee’s sex. The two main categories of workplace sexual harassment are:

  • Quid pro quo: In this form of sexual harassment, an employee is pressured to engage in sexual activity to receive preferential treatment (or avoid retaliation). This can mean they are offered a promotion or other kinds of employment benefits in exchange for sex, or they are threatened with loss of their job, demotion, or other punishment for not giving in.
  • Hostile work environment: This is when a harasser’s conduct negatively affects the employee’s work environment. This can include making repeated comments, jokes, or advances that make the victim feel threatened or intimidated, or severe isolated incidents such as assault.

How Does Someone Prove Sexual Harassment?

From the employee side, there’s often the apprehension that a single misinterpreted comment will land them in hot water. The fact is that the law has several elements that must be met to prove sexually harassing conduct. To do that, a claim must show that the conduct was:

  • Because of the victim’s sex: Sexual harassment isn’t just about harassment that is sexual in nature. It includes conduct against someone that is because of their sex.
  • Unwelcome: The actions taken must be unwelcome, and evidence must be provided to clearly demonstrate that they were. (Note that this doesn’t require the employee had to say “no” or “stop” to communicate that, but they do have to show that they didn’t welcome the behavior.)
  • Pervasive or severe: Pervasive sexual harassment takes place over an extended period, so that collectively the perpetrator’s actions are deemed to be harassing. Conversely, an isolated incident may meet the standard of being severe because the conduct is so egregious, such as rape or assault.
  • Both objectively and subjectively offensive: The actions must be both offensive to a reasonable person in the victim’s situation (objectively offensive) and personally offensive to the person targeted (subjectively offensive).
  • Resulting in actual damages: The victim must have suffered actual damages. This can include economic damages (lost wages from missing work, for example) and noneconomic damages (physical or emotional distress).  

Awareness and Prevention in the Workplace

California has strict legal requirements regarding sexual harassment prevention training in the workplace. While it may seem like an annoying box to check off, it’s actually a golden opportunity to alleviate employee fears and set clear expectations for workplace conduct—when it is done right. Boring training programs that are designed to meet the minimum standards and nothing more don’t get the job done.

At Bridge Training Consultants, our sexual harassment prevention training has been created to be understandable and entertaining. Participants learn through humor and concrete examples, with trainings customized to be relevant to your industry. We offer both in-person and remote training in English and Spanish to make our sessions accessible to your entire workforce.

A workplace culture where all employees feel safe and valued benefits everybody, improving retention and productivity and reducing conflict. To find out how Bridge Training can help you foster a supportive environment through effective sexual harassment prevention training, contact us here.

Learn more about our speak up safely platform NotMe Solutions HERE

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