How to Report Sexual Harassment at Work in California

May 21, 2020

Sexual harassment laws are clear. When sex discrimination happens within your workplace, you’re protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In California, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act also offers protection from harassment. Sexual harassment can be physical, verbal, or visual. Unwelcomed advances are also sexual harassment. If it’s happening to you at work, at dinner meetings, on business trips, or during business functions, it’s illegal.

Types of Sexual Harassment in California

California’s sexual harassment laws cover three areas. The first is “Quid Pro Quo,” which is a form of harassment where an employee’s job is placed under conditions related to sexual or gender-based matters. If an employer offers a promotion if the employee engages in sexual acts with his/her manager, that’s Quid Pro Quo harassment. Another example would be a woman who is offered a pay raise if she agrees to wear low-cut sweaters all of the time.

An employment consequence that’s based on the acceptance or rejection of sexual advancements is the second type. For example, if an employee refuses to share a room with a boss during a business trip and is fired, that’s illegal. If a man is demoted after refusing his boss’s advances, that’s another example of a “consequence” harassment situation.

The third time is sexual harassment that creates a hostile or uncomfortable work environment. If a woman continually gets graphic drawings emailed to her by other employees and makes her anxious when new emails arrive, that’s a form of sexual harassment. If the anxiety is affecting the job, it’s not okay. Shegerian Conniff represented a woman who was repeatedly told that she had incredible legs and should wear shorter skirts and show them off. The behavior progressed to her abuser touching her inappropriately. She was told she’d have to keep working with him, and she became anxious and fearful at work. It’s clear her work environment was a problem for her, and she felt forced to quit her job.

Sexual harassment includes these behaviors:

  • Employment benefits – Statements (written or verbal) that offer a benefit if the employee agrees to provide a sexual favor in return
  • Physical harassment – Assault, interference with moving around (such as blocking a doorway), or inappropriate or unwanted touching
  • Unwanted sexual advances – Sexual advances that are unwanted that a work associate keeps making even if asked to stop
  • Verbal abuse – Verbal statements that are of a sexual nature that are degrading or obscene
  • Verbal advances or propositions – Sexual propositions that are verbal
  • Verbal harassment – Harassment made verbally, such as gender-based slurs or derogatory comments
  • Visual harassment – Drawings or other images that are sexual or harassing in nature that make employee/s uncomfortable

Under California’s sexual harassment laws, the person harassing you is liable, but your employer may be equally liable. If your supervisor is harassing you, the company is responsible for that supervisor’s behavior while at work. You could have a case against both your employer and your boss.

You may find that your employer doesn’t seem to take your claim seriously or writes it off. Do not let that happen. If you’re told you’re just an intern so the sexual harassment laws don’t apply to you, that’s not true. Under the law, an “employee” is anyone who contracts with, volunteers for, or interns with the company involved. You are allowed to file a complaint about a co-worker, even if that co-worker doesn’t file his or her own complaint. In one case, a fast-food worker witnessed a 22-year-old manager engaging in relationships with 16-year-old workers. She filed a sexual harassment complaint based on what she witnessed. She was fired shortly after. The company claimed she was fired due to the worker’s manipulation of software used to rate employee performance. The jury sided with the worker.

What Do You Do When You’re the Victim of Harassment?

If you feel you’re the victim of sexual harassment, what do you do? Pull out your employee handbook. You might have a physical copy or access to a PDF. Read the handbook’s pages on sexual harassment in the workplace. See how it says to report it. Companies with five or more must provide two hours of sexual harassment/abusive conduct prevention training every other year to workers in a supervisory role and one hour to other workers. Seasonal or temporary workers receive the training within 100 hours or 30 days, whichever comes first.

If you’ve had that training recently, you may know what to do from those classes. You might report it to someone in your HR department. You might have to report it to a supervisor. Make sure you understand what the handbook says. If there are questions, talk to an attorney who specializes in sexual harassment cases. That lawyer’s expertise will be extremely helpful as you decide the steps to take next.

If you were assaulted on the job, do not wait until you can get to the HR department. Call the police. It can be difficult emotionally, but you’ve been assaulted and must be seen by a medical professional so that evidence of the assault can be collected correctly. The sooner you report it, the stronger the evidence can be.

You have to file a formal complaint. Your employer has to take your complaint seriously and immediately launch an investigation. Corrections must be made if problems are discovered during the investigation. Witnesses are interviewed, as are those accused of harassment. Every step of the investigation has to be documented and stored in a confidential file.

When you get a note, text, call, or email, avoid that instant reaction of shock that has you deleting or tossing something out. Save it. Gather that evidence and put it in a safe place. If the harassment was sent via email, print out copies and save the original messages on a flash drive in case it gets deleted. Keep any drawings. Save text messages. Take screenshots of instant messages or social media posts/messages. Do not post anything to social media. While you may want to share the shock of what happened, it can harm your case if you’re sharing everything on a social media page as it happens.

If the harassment has taken place over the phone or face-to-face, keep a journal of when the harassment happens and what was said/done. Do not record the harasser without his/her permission. It’s unlikely you’ll get permission, but you cannot secretly record the other person and expect that to count as evidence. You can only record someone with permission. The same applies to videos. If the caller left a message on your voicemail, talk to an attorney before you delete it.

If your employer doesn’t seem to be taking your claim seriously, consider filing sexual harassment complaints with the California Department of Fair Employee and Housing or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Both of those agencies offer instructions on how to file online, by phone, or by mail. That’s a second option, but there’s a better one.

Employment laws cover a lot of ground. It can be hard to navigate the rules and what’s required of you. There are time limits that you have to meet. If you miss the statute of limitations, you cannot turn back time. Sexual harassment doesn’t have to be limited to sexual acts, motions, or words. Gender is another area where sexual harassment claims fit. The same is true for women who are pregnant and nursing. Harassment against people in these groups can meet sexual harassment laws. This is why it’s important to ask for advice from an expert. Shegerian Conniff understands how the laws apply in different situations.

It’s easy to feel ashamed and want to stay quiet, but you cannot do that. You need to stand up for yourself and help others who may be targeted after you. You may not be the first victim. Others may have been in your shoes and not had the courage to stand up to their harasser. If you’re a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, you need to speak up for your rights. Do not let shame and fear keep you from reporting sexual harassment. California laws are clear about your rights. If you need help reporting sexual harassment at work, call Shegerian Conniff for a free consultation. We’re here for you 24/7 and will help you understand what to do next.