Here are the Steps to Take

There are both federal and California state laws protecting employees from experiencing workplace harassment and/or discrimination. On the federal level, employee protection against discrimination and harassment in the workplace falls under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This stipulates that it’s illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee based on specified characteristics, such as race, color, national origin, religion, and sex. On the state level, employees are protected against workplace discrimination and harassment under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

In accordance with federal and state laws, an employer must conduct due diligence in the form of a thorough investigation should an employee disclose a sexual harassment complaint.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination, and is defined by Merriam-Webster as unwanted and uninvited sexual advances and/or obscene sexual remarks directed toward any individual in a workplace and/or another professional situation, generally, but not always, “by a person in authority toward a subordinate.” According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), the following additional examples are also considered to fall under the category of sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • Offering employment perks in exchange for sexual favors
  • Verbal harassment (i.e., inappropriate nicknames, derogatory comments, slurs, etc.)
  • Visual harassment (i.e., openly displaying derogatory posters, photos and/or illustrations of sexually charged content, publicly playing sexually inappropriate videos, etc.)
  • Physical harassment (i.e., assault, unwelcome touching, intentional physical interference, etc.)
  • Verbal sexual propositions
  • Leering and/or sexual gestures
  • Verbal comments about an individual’s body

It’s important to note that sexual harassment will be recognized under both state and federal laws regardless of gender. The California Fair Employment and Housing Actfurther protects California employees against sexual harassment on the basis of a person’s gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression.

Sexual Harassment in California

Many organizations in California have in-house resources that are specifically dedicated to supporting their employees when situations, such as discrimination and/or harassment, arise in the workplace. It’s common practice for a company to have clear sexual harassment policies that are widely known and easily accessible to its employees. The State of California Department of Justice asserts that any employer with more than fifty employees is mandated to provide a minimum of two hours of sexual harassment prevention training to all supervisory employees, every two years.

First Steps When Sexually Harassed

Federal and state laws are in place to assure that employees can work in an environment that is free from sexual harassment and discrimination. Employees need not endure or tolerate harassment of any kind in the workplace. An employee experiencing sexual harassment at work may first want to review their employer’s sexual harassment policies. The next step should be for the employee to inform their employer of their sexual harassment complaint. The employer should immediately attempt to eliminate the employee’s exposure to sexual harassment. Some sexual harassment policies specifically stipulate that complaints must be provided as a written document that includes the date, time, individuals involved, and any additional pertinent incident details.

Filing a Complaint

Assuming an employee experiencing sexual harassment at work has exhausted all proper channels and resources, without resolve, it may be time to escalate the complaint. The only way an employee experiencing sexual harassment at work can take any type of legal action is if the employee comes forward by taking the required steps to file a formal complaint with the appropriate state and/or federal agency. The California state agency tasked with protecting employees from unlawful harassment and/or discrimination is the DFEH. Filing a sexual harassment complaint with DFEH can be done here on their website. The EEOC is the federal agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws. Additional information regarding filing a complaint through the EEOC can be found here.

While filing a sexual harassment complaint through a state and/or federal agency does not require an attorney’s assistance, it may be best to consult an experienced employment lawyer—they can help ensure that the complaint has all the legally-significant information as well as protecting the rights of the employee.

If the complaint cannot be resolved with the DFEH or EEOC, the final step is a lawsuit. In some cases, the DFEH or EEOC will represent the harassed employee. In other cases, the harassed employee will need to retain an employment lawyer to represent them.

Disclaimer: Please note, while every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this article, it is not intended to be legal advice, as situations differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or a lawyer.


Because California is an “at-will” employment state (employers are free to terminate employees at any time) employees think that they have no rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. Learn more about your employee rights. Contact us today.

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