Sexual Harassment under California Law

Sexual harassment generally refers to unwelcome and inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature in the workplace. California recognizes two distinct forms of sexual harassment: (1) when a supervisor makes promises or threats for sexual favors (i.e., “quid pro quo” harassment), and (2) when an employee is subjected to an abusive, intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment (i.e., “hostile work environment” harassment).

Quid Pro Quo Harassment:

This form of sexual harassment usually occurs when a supervisor makes promises or threats in exchange for sexual favors. Its name comes from the Latin phrase “quid pro quo” which means “something for something.” Examples of “quid pro quo” harassment include:

• a supervisor threatening to fire or demote an employee if he or she refuses sexual advances

• a supervisor promising promotion, advancement or other favorable treatment to an employee if he or she submits to sexual advances

Such promises or threats need not be explicit and, instead, may be implied from the circumstances. Furthermore, a single threat or promise may be sufficient to support a “quid pro quo” harassment claim. However, the threat must actually be carried out and result in a tangible employment action (i.e., a significant change in employment status).

Hostile Work Environment Harassment:

This form of sexual harassment occurs when unwelcome sexual advances, conduct or comments creates an abusive, intimidating, hostile or offense work environment. The hostile environment can be created by a supervisor, coworker and, even, nonemployees (e.g., customers and clients).

A hostile work environment can be created by verbal conduct (e.g., harassment, lewd remarks, slurs, insults, hostile words, sexual advances, derogatory comments) physical conduct (e.g., sexual assault, impeding or blocking movement, offensive touching, persistent staring) and/or displays of visually offensive materials (e.g., pornography, cartoons, posters).

Unlike “quid pro quo” harassment, “hostile work environment” harassment does not require that the victim suffer a tangible change in employment status. However, the harassment must be so “severe or pervasive” as to alter the working environment. Under this standard, a single instance of severe misconduct or frequent incidents of lesser severity may be adequate to support a “hostile work environment” claim.

Both “quid pro quo” and “hostile work environment” harassment protect both men and women from heterosexual and same-sex harassment.

The foregoing is a brief summary of the extensive and complex subject of sexual harassment. Employees that believe that they may be victims of sexual harassment in the workplace should consult with an attorney specializing in employment law. Many employment lawyers, including the Law Offices of David S. Levy, provided free initial consultations for sexual harassment matters.

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