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California Sexual Harassment Laws

Posted by Eric Kingsley | Apr 22, 2024 | 0 Comments

Certain behaviors, such as conditioning promotions, awards, training or other job benefits upon acceptance of unwelcome actions of a sexual nature, are always wrong. That's sexual harassment and it is against the law. In 2024, workers are given a variety of protections, many of which can result in compensation if violated.

If you think you may be a victim of sexual harassment then it is important to understand the basic definitions of sexual harassment. California and Federal law generally defines sexual harassment as unwanted or unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.

It is defined in two distinct categories - Quid Pro Quo Harassment or Hostile Work Environment.

Key Points - Table of Contents

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

"Quid pro quo" (this for that) harassment occurs when a supervisor offers to provide certain employee benefits in exchange for sexual favors. Or conversely, withholds specific benefits for refusal of sexual advances.  Examples of benefits could include a raise or promotion and sometimes, continued employment itself.

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when a supervisor requires a subordinate to submit to sexual advances by threatening the subordinate with an adverse employment action, such as a bad review, demotion, or termination. These kinds of situations can be expressly communicated or implied, and usually take one of two forms:

  • An offer - The employer or supervisor offers a job benefit-like a raise or a promotion-in exchange for some kind of sexual conduct on the part of the employee.
  • A threat - The employer or supervisor makes a threat of a work-related punishment-like a demotion, pay reduction, or termination-unless the employee gives in to the employer or supervisor's sexual demands.
    The threat or offer can be either express or implied, meaning the mere discussion of sexual acts or behavior that could lead to sexual acts can suggest an offer or threat.

Quid pro quo harassment can only be committed by a supervisor, manager, or another employee who is in a position to take some tangible employment action against the victim. Coworkers who are on equal footing and who demand sexual favors are not engaging in quid pro quo harassment. However, they may be responsible for creating a hostile work environment as described below.

Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment

Hostile Work Environment

Hostile Work Environment harassment occurs when an employee's work environment becomes abusive, intimidating, or hostile as a result of severe or pervasive sexual misconduct by a co-worker(s).  In this case, a manager, supervisor, co-worker, peer, or even a non-employee such as a customer can create the hostile environment.

Keep in mind that harassment can come in a variety of forms.  It can be verbal, visual/non-verbal or physical.

Hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs when the victim's work environment is made hostile, offensive, oppressive, intimidating, or abusive due to repeated "pervasive" sexual harassment. Unlike quid pro quo harassment, any employee can create a hostile work environment. Because conduct must be "pervasive," there usually must be more than one instance of unlawful conduct to create a hostile work environment. To make a case under this theory, victims must show a concerted pattern of harassment of a repeated, routine, or a generalized nature. Also, the harassing conduct doesn't have to be specifically targeted at an individual. In other words, one employee who observes another employee engaging in sexually harassing conduct may have his own claim of hostile environment sexual harassment.

California courts have laid out several factors to determine the degree of pervasiveness of the sexual harassment, including:

  • Nature of the conduct - California courts look at the degree of offensiveness of the behavior. Generally, acts like physical touching are more offensive than unwelcome verbal or written abuse. The more offensive the conduct, the less often it needs to occur to be considered "pervasive."
  • Frequency - California courts consider how often the offending conduct occurred. A daily occurrence of sexual harassment is more likely to constitute "pervasive" behavior than acts that happen once a month or less.
  • Number of days - California courts count or approximate the total number of days over which all of the offensive conduct occurs.
  • Context - California courts look at the context in which the sexually harassing conduct occurred. Some situations may mitigate the degree of pervasiveness or offensiveness of the sexual conduct.


Spoken innuendo or suggestive comments; jokes or teasing; repeated date requests; sexual advances or propositions; or general comments about body or dress that are of a sexual nature.

Visual Or Non Verbal

Staring; whistling; vulgar sounds or gestures; offensive visuals; obscene email, letters, and other written materials; or gifts of a sexual nature.

Sharing, displaying, or distributing sexually suggestive images, posters, or videos in the workplace can be a form of harassment. Persistent staring, ogling, or leering at someone in a sexualized manner can create a hostile environment.


Inappropriate touching such as brushing, pinching, or hugging; display of body parts; coerced acts; blocking movement; or assault of a sexual nature.

If you are experiencing Sexual Harassment in your workplace here are some initial steps to take:

  1. Document the situations including the date, time, those in attendance, and details of what occurred
  2. Consult an attorney for advice
  3. Refer to your employee manual to determine your company policy on reporting the sexual harassment within your company
  4. File a claim with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

At Kingsley and Kingsley Lawyers, we understand that you may be going through a difficult time, and we are here to help you recover from the wrongs that you suffered.  An attorney at our firm can meet with you for a free initial consultation to discuss the circumstances of your case.  We also take most cases on a contingency fee basis, which means that you do not pay any fees unless you win or recover compensation.  Please feel free to call Eric Kingsley toll-free at (818) 990-8300. Our local number is 818-990-8300 (Los Angeles Co.); additional contact information can be found here.

Our sexual harassment lawyers know how to help victims. Speak with a legal professional you trust today by giving our firm a call.

Suing For Damages

Employers, supervisors, and coworkers can be liable to the victim for several types of damages. In actions under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, victims may seek:

  • Compensatory damages
  • Emotional distress damages
  • Punitive damages
  • Attorney fees and costs
  • Injunctive relief

It's important to note that sexual harassment can occur between any individuals, regardless of their gender, and can be perpetrated by anyone in the workplace, including supervisors, coworkers, or clients.

Additional Resources

California Department of Public Health. SEXUAL HARASSMENT PREVENTION POLICY

U.S. Department of State Sexual Harassment Policy

Sexual Harassment definition on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

About the Author

Eric Kingsley

Eric B. Kingsley is a 2023 "Best In Law" Award winner and has litigated over 150 class actions. He is also an AV peer rated attorney and a prolific speaker at various seminars on employment law.


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