The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) protects employees from harassment in the workplace. In California, a hostile work environment is defined as inappropriate behavior in the workplace that is either severe or pervasive enough to create an abusive work atmosphere for one or more employees. The legal definition of hostile work environment harassment under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act is:
- Discriminatory intimidation, ridicule or insult (workplace bullying, essentially),
- That is either severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment for the person being harassed.
For most employees experiencing harassment, the first step is to file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Then you may file a lawsuit against your harasser and/or your employer once the DFEH issues you a “right to sue” notice.
The California harassment attorneys at Workers’ Advocate Law Group can advise you on the best course of action if you experience harassment at work.
What is the difference between hostile work environment and discrimination?
Both harassing conduct and discrimination in the workplace are prohibited by the FEHA. But employees and employers are often confused about the difference between the two.
- Hostile Work Environment (“HWE”) harassment occurs when someone in the workplace mistreats another person based on their gender, race, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, etc., in a way that falls outside the job description of the person committing the harassing.
- In contrast, employment discrimination occurs when an employer or supervisor treats different employees differently on the basis of prohibited categories while performing acts that are part of the job description of the person committing discrimination.
So, for example, if a supervisor regularly directed sexist, abusive comments toward female employees, that would be a hostile work environment harassing. But if that same supervisor tended to give promotions and raises only to men, that would be employment discrimination.
In most states, including California, it’s unlawful to sexually harass an employee, but countless Americans across the country still experience harassment in the form of inappropriate touching, offensive jokes, and more. In fact, a recent study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EOCC) revealed that one in four women and one in five men have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
Sexual harassment is prohibited by both federal and state laws. At the federal level, sexual harassment is unlawful under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) considers sexual harassment as a form of employment discrimination at the state level.
Sexual harassment can include a wide range of unwanted behaviors and actions, from derogatory comments and slurs to retaliation after you’ve complained about instances of harassment.
You may have experienced sexual harassment if any of the following happened to you in the workplace:
- Unwanted touching, such as pats on the butt, pinching, or back rubs
- Discussion of sexual acts
- Rude gestures
- Presence of sexually suggestive objects, pictures, or posters
- Graphic comments or invitations
- Unwanted sexual propositions
- Threats to reduce your hours or benefits if you don’t comply with sexual requests
Generally, there are two main forms of recognized workplace sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.
A lot people are familiar with the definition of sexual harassment, particularly quid pro quo sexual harassment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment under California labor law occurs when a supervisor says or suggests that an employee needs to perform a sexual service if s/he wants to gain an advantage, or avoid a negative outcome, at work.
But harassment in California employment law also encompasses “hostile work environment” harassment (including non-sexual harassment) on the basis of:
- Race or ethnicity,
- National origin,
- Sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, and
What should the employee do if he/she is harassed on the basis of religion, race, disability, sexual orientation or another protected category?
- Tell either a supervisor or a member of the Human Resources Department supervisor or Human Resources team in the organization about the harassment.
- Work with an California Employment Attorney (link to our workersadvocate.law) to file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”), within three (3) years after the harassment occurs. This step is required before one can file a workplace harassment (sexual or non-sexual) lawsuit in California.
- Wait for the DFEH to issue a “right to sue” notice. Once the notice is issued, the employee and his/her California employment attorney may file a civil lawsuit against the harasser and/or the employer seeking monetary damages, within one (1) year after the right to sue notice is issued.
Sometimes employees are afraid to take action if they are harassed because they worry that they will be fired. But in fact, the FEHA strictly forbids any retaliation (including wrongful termination) against employees who exercise their rights under California harassment law or participate in harassment investigations.
How Long Do I Have to Report Sexual Harassment?
It can be difficult to speak up. Some victims come forward months or years after the incident, or never come forward at all. We encourage all harassment victims and witnesses to workplace harassment to confide in our California harassment attorneys about this issue, so we can take immediate action to remedy the situation. You typically have three years to file a claim with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and 300 days to file with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). However, certain exceptions can apply, especially if you are a federal employee or an employee of another government entity. You should consult with an experienced local harassment lawyer as soon as possible to make sure you don’t miss the applicable statute of limitations.
Count on an experienced lawyer from Workers’ Advocate Law Group who has extensive experience in fighting for their clients’ employment rights. You can contact our firm online to schedule your free consultation in English or Spanish today. Our team will be more than happy to assist you accordingly.