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What is the Legal Definition of Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment at work. Person putting hand on shoulder. Touch knee

Federal and California state law prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace. Many employees and employers are not clear on what actually constitutes sexual harassment. Is it harassment to ask out another employee on a date, should they refuse? Is it only harassment if a supervisor threatens to fire an employee for refusing a sexual act? Below, we explain the legal definition of sexual harassment with some practical examples. If you believe you’ve been subjected to sexual harassment at your workplace, call a seasoned Riverside workplace harassment lawyer for advice on what to do next.

General Definition

Sexual harassment broadly refers to unlawful harassment targeted at a person’s sex, which is considered to be a form of unlawful sex or gender discrimination. Federal law defines sexual harassment in the following way:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when

(1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment,

(2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or

(3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

Sexual harassment can be perpetrated by anyone and targeted at anyone in the workplace. Sexual harassment can be committed by women as well as men, and it can target a person of the same sex or gender. Sexual harassment is not meant to cover isolated incidents or innocent comments and is instead meant to cover situations in which either the employee’s work life is made unbearable as a result of the harassment, or agreeing to sexual conduct is made a condition of an individual’s employment or job benefits.

Based on federal and state law, courts have come to recognize two different legal theories for sexual harassment claims: “Quid pro quo” harassment and “hostile work environment” harassment.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Quid pro quo harassment refers to situations in which an employee is either offered a job benefit in exchange for sexual favors or is threatened with termination or other penalties for refusing a sexual advance. A supervisor offering a promotion in exchange for a date or intercourse, for example, would constitute quid pro quo sexual harassment. Likewise, a supervisor threatening to fire an employee for refusing to wear revealing clothing would also constitute quid pro quo harassment. Courts have held employers strictly liable for quid pro quo harassment committed by supervisors.

Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment

Hostile work environment harassment occurs when harassing conduct is so extreme or pervasive as to unreasonably interfere with the employee’s job performance, or to create a hostile, intimidating, or offensive workplace. A coworker or supervisor’s repeated sexual advances, demeaning comments, sexist jokes, or other offensive conduct may give rise to a hostile work environment claim. An employee can have a hostile work environment claim even if they are not threatened with any adverse employment action or offered a benefit in exchange for sexual conduct.

Employers may be held liable for hostile work environment harassment either when the conduct was committed by an employee’s supervisor (or anyone up the chain), or when the employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take appropriate corrective action. Typically, the conduct must either be pervasive–meaning constant and ongoing–or extremely egregious–such as physically assaulting a coworker–for the conduct to create a hostile work environment. A single, isolated sexist joke, for example, might not constitute a hostile work environment, but if the conduct continues, it could give rise to a hostile work environment claim.

Call a Dedicated Labor Law Attorney for Help With a Sexual Harassment Claim

For help protecting yourself and recovering compensation after experiencing sexual harassment in Southern California, call Ochoa & Calderón to discuss your case with a zealous and accomplished California labor and employment attorney. Call 951-901-4444 in Riverside or 844-401-0750 toll-free throughout Southern California.

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