What Constitutes Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

In California, sexual harassment┬áis behavior characterized by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other professional or social situation. Such behaviors can range from inappropriate jokes and comments to intrusive questions about one’s personal life, as well as more extreme behaviors like unwelcome touching, gestures, or sexual advances.

Experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace can be a traumatic experience for many employees. Not only can sexual harassment take a serious toll on workers' mental and physical well-being, but it can also silence their voices. Many employees hesitate to come forward after being sexually harassed by a boss or colleague, as it's normal to worry about facing backlash or even termination after making a report.

It's essential for workers to be aware of their employee rights, especially when it comes to recognizing and reporting sexual harassment in the workplace. This can empower them to take necessary steps to combat sexual harassment and exercise their right to work in a safe and healthful environment.

Keep reading to learn more about identifying sexual harassment in California workplaces.

Work-Related Sexual Harassment in California

Under state and federal law, sexual harassment is illegal in the workplace. According to the EEOC, it’s unlawful to harass any employee—including applicants during hiring processes—on the basis of sex. It’s worth noting that sexual harassment isn’t limited to sexual acts, but extends to any offensive remarks about a person’s sex.

Contrary to popular belief, sexual harassment isn’t restricted to company premises. To qualify, work-related harassment can occur in a variety of settings, even beyond the actual workplace. Examples of out-of-office activities include work-related events at recreational facilities, public parks, conference centers, or even within company vehicles during commutes or job-related travel.

Long-Term Effects of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious issue that can have profound health implications for those exposed to it. Fortunately, there are various steps that employees can take to safely reduce and eliminate sexual harassment at work, such as:

  • Understanding what constitutes sexual harassment under the law
  • Staying up-to-date on company policies related to sexual harassment
  • Speaking up about incidents of sexual harassment as soon as possible
  • Refusing to tolerate behaviors that make them feel victimized or unsafe
  • Consulting with HR or other trusted authorities in the workplace when needed

Sexual harassment can quickly derail an individual’s confidence and self-esteem and have lasting impacts on future employability, financial health, and professional relationships. The effects of sexual harassment on an employee’s mental and physical health are often significant and long-lasting.

Common health issues faced by employees after sexual harassment in the workplace include:

  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Fear of retaliation at work
  • Insomnia and sleep disturbances
  • Stress-related headaches or tension
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

5 Subtle Signs of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

As you can imagine, there are many types of sexual harassment that can go unnoticed in the workplace. This is why it’s essential for California workers to know and understand what sexual harassment can look like, even at subtle levels.

Consider these 5 subtle signs of sexual harassment at work:

1. Inappropriate comments or jokes

Although derogatory comments and jokes in the workplace can be blatant examples of sexual harassment, some are less obvious than others. Many offensive remarks can fly well under the radar, permitting them to escape undetected. While some may perceive the occasional joke as harmless, this isn’t always the case.

From suggestive comments to sexual innuendos, words can play a key role in sexual harassment. Common examples include making jokes that are demeaning to women, teasing someone about sexuality, or sharing unwelcome stories about one’s sexual experiences.

2. Unwelcome or persistent flirting

While flirting is often perceived as harmless and even endearing, someone who insists on flirting or romantically engaging with a person who already communicated their disinterest, whether directly or indirectly, is likely crossing a legal line. Forgoing professionalism to romantically pursue an individual at work is an often overlooked sign of sexual harassment.

3. Retaliation against employees who speak up

Sexual harassment can occur when a victim refuses a sexual advance or reports inappropriate behavior, only to be met with backlash. This is known as retaliation. Sadly, it isn’t uncommon for individuals in higher-ranking positions to abuse their power by retaliating against victims who report acts of misconduct. For example, perpetrators may attempt to:

  • Burden the victim with an unfair workload
  • Modify their job responsibilities to be less favorable
  • Pass them up for a promotion they rightfully deserved

4. Denying or dismissing sexual harassment as unintentional

No one is perfect. While it’s possible and even understandable for people to engage in sexual harassment without realizing it, there is no excuse for failing to accept and integrate honest feedback from those who feel victimized by such behaviors. When someone repeatedly insists on downplaying, dismissing, or denying offensive comments or actions as well-meaning or “just a joke,” this counts as sexual harassment.

Consider an employee who repeatedly teases or questions their coworker about sexual orientation. If the harassed employee tells the perpetrator to stop at least once, there is no excuse for the harasser to continue. Justifying inappropriate behavior by accusing the victim of being too sensitive or overreacting is punishable as sexual harassment under the law.

5. Non-verbal harassment that creates discomfort or hostility

Suggestive body language can also qualify as sexual harassment in the workplace, as misconduct does not have to entail spoken words or explicit actions to be considered illegal under California law. Examples include sexual gestures, facial expressions, and other suggestive body language that is considered sensual or inappropriate in nature.

Fearless Representation for Hardworking California Employees

Given that the average American spends one-third of their life working, it's no surprise that mistreatment in the workplace can take a heavy toll on the well-being of California workers. From religious discrimination to FMLA violations, our employment law firm has extensive experience holding employers accountable for misconduct. With over 25 years of experience, our accomplished employment law attorney has a longstanding reputation for taking on cases that other lawyers turn down, giving him a considerable edge in the courtroom.

If you’ve been wronged by a boss or colleague, it’s likely that your financial security isn’t the only thing at stake. From impaired relationships to work-life imbalance, experiencing mistreatment or discrimination in the workplace can disrupt various elements in a person’s life. No matter your situation, our trusted team at Polaris Law Group can fight to recover fair compensation and justice on your behalf.

If you’ve been mistreated in the workplace, taking swift legal action is crucial to protect your rights. Call (888) 796-4010 to schedule a free consultation.

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