California Sexual Harassment Law - What Conduct is Prohibited?


What constitutes sexual harassment in California?

California labor law attorney Neil Shouse explains what qualifies as sexual harassment in California, and what victims of sexual harassment can do to fight back. California law recognizes two forms of sexual harassment: “quid pro quo” and “hostile work environment.” Quid pro quo sexual harassment is when an employer or supervisor offers some benefit or special treatment to an employee or subordinate, in exchange for a sexual act, or anything with sexual connotations such as going on a date. For example a supervisor could offer a raise, or a promotion, or even offer to not tell the boss about some misdeed the employee committed, in exchange for sex, romantic involvement, or photographs of a sexual nature. A hostile work environment occurs after persistent unwanted behavior that your boss or supervisor fails to correct. This situation can be created in a number of ways, and doesn’t necessarily have to come from the boss or supervisor themselves. The hostile work environment may be created by a co-worker, a costumer, a client, or any other person that the employee is forced to interact with because of their job. The unwanted behavior could be physical touching, or it could be persistent comments of a sexual nature. The strongest cases for sexual harassment are those with written evidence such as emails or text messages, or witnesses such as co-workers who are willing to attest to the harassment. And very strong cases occur if the victim complained about the behavior to their company, and made a record of it, but the company still did not correct the situation. More info at or call (888) 327-4652 for a free consultation. If you or a loved one has suffered harassment in the workplace we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

In California, workplace sexual harassment can come in 2 forms:

  1. “Quid pro quo” sexual harassment, or
  2. Hostile work environment.

Not everything “sexual” in the workplace rises to the level of “sexual harassment,” however. Courts in California have refined what amounts to harassment in countless lawsuits.

The main law on sexual harassment in California is the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). This law is found at California Government Code 12940. It was heavily revised with the passage of SB 1300 in 2018.

In this article, our California employment law lawyers explain:

female employee getting touched, perhaps unwantingly, as an example of sexual harassment
Sometimes, employees welcome conduct from a boss or coworker, but sometimes they don't

1. What is sexual harassment in California?

Sexual harassment in California falls into 2 categories:

  1. Quid pro quo” harassment, and
  2. Hostile work environment” harassment.1

Both “quid pro quo” harassment and “hostile work environment” harassment require that sexual conduct be unwelcome.

Sometimes, employees welcome conduct from a boss or coworker. In these instances, there is no “sexual harassment.” Whether the advances were welcomed or not can be difficult to prove. It centers on intent, rather than outward actions.

Example: Pauline's boss, Ted, asks her out on a date and she accepts. They begin a sexual relationship. Ted promotes her, but a year later their relationship ends. Pauline will probably not be able to prove sexual harassment because Ted's advances were not unwelcome.

In some cases, workers may have a claim of both quid pro quo and hostile work environment harassment.

2. What is “quid pro quo” sexual harassment?

Supervisors who demand sexual favors for a workplace benefit commit “quid pro quo” sexual harassment.2

To prove a case of quid pro quo harassment, workers need to show:

  • They worked for the defendant, applied for a job with the defendant, or provided services to the defendant,
  • A supervisor or one of the defendant's agents made unwanted sexual advances or other conduct,
  • A favorable working condition was made contingent, by words or insinuation, on those sexual requests,
  • The worker was harmed by this conduct, and
  • The supervisor's actions were a substantial factor in that harm.3

Quid pro quo sexual harassment involves the exchange of sexual favors for workplace benefits. However, those benefits can take numerous different forms, like:

  • A promotion,
  • A raise,
  • Extra working hours,
  • A more favorable working schedule,
  • Assignment to a project of choice,
  • Hiring the job applicant in exchange for a sexual favor, or
  • Not firing the employee.

The quid pro quo element can be either explicit or implied.4

Whether express or implied, there have to be repercussions for a refusal in order to be harassment. Supervisors who threaten negative employment consequences if an employee refuses their sexual advances must actually follow through on that threat. If they do not follow through on their threat, there is no quid pro quo harassment.5 However, it can amount to a hostile working environment.

The worker claiming harassment also has to establish a causal connection. They have to connect the refusal and the repercussions.

hostile boss shouting
A “hostile work environment” can also constitute harassment

3. How can sexual harassment create a hostile working environment?

A “hostile work environment” can also constitute harassment. An employee has a sexual harassment claim against an employer if:

  1. The employee is the recipient of unwelcome advances, conduct or comment;
  2. This harassment is in some sense based on the employee's sex; and
  3. This harassment is either severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of employment.6

Harassment claims based on a hostile working environment focus on 2 things:

  1. The severity of the conduct, and
  2. The pervasiveness of the conduct.

This conduct has to be more than just:

  • Occasional,
  • Isolated,
  • Sporadic, or
  • Trivial.7

To determine whether a working environment was hostile, courts look at all of the evidence available. Indirect evidence of harassment is permitted. Stray remarks by coworkers can be used to show that a working environment is toxic.8 This means that the question of whether harassment is severe or pervasive enough is often one for a jury. Amendments to the FEHA made in 2018 emphasize that summary judgments should be rare.9

The harassment does not actually have to be based on sexual activity, desire, or attraction.10 In fact, harassment can be non-sexual, as well. It can be on the basis of:

3.1. When does sexual quid pro quo lead to a hostile working environment?

A supervisor's favorable treatment of one employee in exchange for sexual returns can create a hostile working environment for other employees.11 In these cases, the employee providing sexual favors can even welcome their supervisor's advances. Other employees can claim that are suffering from sexual harassment because of the supervisor's sexual favoritism.

Example: A supervisor has numerous sexual affairs with female subordinates. Those employees get raises and promotions that are not justified by their job performance. Other female employees may have a sexual harassment claim for a hostile working environment.

4. Who can commit sexual harassment in the workplace?

Sexual harassment in the workplace can come from a variety of people:

  • Supervisors or bosses,
  • Company owners,
  • Coworkers,
  • Clients,
  • Customers,
  • Independent contractors, or
  • Vendors.

Who commits the harassment can make a huge difference in a sexual harassment lawsuit. For example, it is easier to hold companies liable for conduct done by supervisors than by non-employees. Additionally, some groups of people cannot commit certain types of harassment.

4.1. Supervisors or bosses

Supervisors or bosses are employed by the same person or company as the person being harassed. However, they have decision-making power over the victim of the harassment.

Most cases of quid pro quo sexual harassment involve a supervisor or boss. They have the leverage – even if it is only apparent leverage – to pressure a worker into a sexual favor. However, a supervisor's conduct can also contribute to a hostile working environment.

Sexual harassment by a boss is different from a non-supervisor's conduct. It makes the employer strictly liable for the damages won in a harassment suit. The employer is liable even if they were not negligent or deficient in any way.12

Example: Claire's boss aggressively and relentlessly flirts with her at work. The company can be held strictly liable for the harassment.

4.2. Coworkers

Coworkers are fellow employees of the same company. However, coworkers do not have power over each other in the same way that supervisors do.

Because of the lack of power or apparent leverage, coworkers are rarely able to commit quid pro quo sexual harassment. They can, however, be responsible for creating a hostile workplace.

When coworkers are responsible for sexual harassment, the employer is only liable for damages if it was negligent. Employers are only negligent for sexual harassment if they:

  • Knew or should have known of the harassment, and
  • Failed to take appropriate corrective action.13

If the employer was not negligent, then it cannot be held liable for the harassment. The victim of the harassment can, however, still pursue the individuals who were responsible for their ordeal.

Example: Claire's coworker aggressively and relentlessly flirts with her at work. If Claire can show the company should have known about the problem and failed to take action, it can be held liable. If she cannot show these facts, she can pursue her coworker in the lawsuit.

4.3. Third parties, including independent contractors or vendors

People who are not employed by the same company can commit sexual harassment in the workplace, too.14 Third parties who can harass someone on the job include:

  • Independent contractors,
  • Clients,
  • Customers, or
  • Other workers who regularly interact with the company's employees, like a deliveryman.

An employer can be held liable for sexual harassment by a third party. However, the victim has to show that the employer:

  • Knew or should have known about the harassment; and
  • Failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.15

Appropriate corrective actions can include:

  • Ending a business relationship with a harassing client,
  • Kicking an abusive customer out of the store,
  • Moving the employee to a location where they will not have to deal with a harassing deliveryman, or
  • Reassigning the employee off of a project that requires interaction with a known harasser.

The extent of the employer's control over the situation will matter. If it would have been easy for the employer to prevent the harassment, they are more likely to be held liable for it.

If the victim cannot hold their employer liable, he or she can still pursue a third party in a lawsuit.

Example: The package deliveryman always flirts with Claire when he comes by the office. She has told her supervisor about it numerous times, but nothing has happened. She can hold her employer liable for the harassment.

Third parties can also commit non-sexual harassment, as well. The FEHA used to prohibit “sexual harassment” committed by non-employees. Amendments to the law in 2018 removed the word “sexual,” prohibiting all types of workplace harassment by non-employees.16

4.4. Sexual harassment between members of the same gender

It is possible to be sexually harassed by a member of the same sex.17 Sexual orientation harassment can be grounds for a lawsuit, too.

California sexual harassment law is responsive to the complexities of sexual and gender identities in today's workplace. The simplistic image of a male supervisor demanding sexual favors from a female employee is no longer the only kind of sexual harassment that courts understand.

Example: A homosexual supervisor requests sexual favor from a male subordinate in return for a raise.18

Example: The coworkers of a male employee make pervasive comments and explicit jokes about his sexuality.19

5. Who can file a sexual harassment claim?

Anyone who has suffered sexual harassment in a workplace setting can file a lawsuit. Victims do not necessarily have to be employees. The law protects the following people from sexual harassment:

  • Employees,
  • Job applicants,
  • Volunteers,
  • Unpaid interns,
  • People providing services under a contract.20

Example: Mary is interviewing for a job. Her interviewer, a man, says that he can make sure she got the job, but only if she will go out on a date with him.

5.1. Does my work productivity have to suffer due to the harassment?

Harassed employees may not have to prove their productivity at work suffered due to the harassment.

The FEHA requires conduct to unreasonably interfere with someone's work performance for it to be harassment.21 The amendments made to FEHA in 2018 added several statements of intent about the law. One of them was that the harassment victim did not have show that their “tangible productivity has declined as a result of the harassment.” Instead, the victim only has to show that the harassment altered working conditions to make the job more difficult.22

Statements of legislative intent like this are not as binding as a statute, though. One California appeals court seemed to follow the 2018 amendments.23 The California Supreme Court has not yet ruled on it.

5.2. What if I waived my rights in the employment contract?

Sexual harassment claims can be filed by people who have signed an agreement that waived their rights to sue or disparage their employer.24 This is a recent change in the law. It was added to California's sexual harassment law in 2018.25

Employers in California cannot require people to release the employer for liability for sexual harassment in exchange for:

  • A raise,
  • A bonus,
  • Employment, or
  • Continued employment.

Any agreement or contract that does this is not enforceable. It is a violation of public policy.26

The only exception is a negotiated settlement agreement to resolve a lawsuit or claim against the employer.27

6. What damages can a harassment victim recover in a lawsuit?

Victims of sexual harassment can recover compensatory damages in a lawsuit. These include:

  • Back pay,
  • Front pay,
  • Pain and suffering,
  • Mental anguish, and
  • Loss of reputation.

Additionally, courts have the discretion of awarding prevailing parties in sexual harassment claims:

  • Attorneys' fees,
  • Court costs, and
  • Expert witness fees.28

This means workers who lose harassment claims could pay damages to their employers. However, recent amendments to the law have restricted when employers can recover these damages. Now, courts can only give employers these damages if the claim was frivolous.29

If the case is settled, the settlement agreement cannot include a gag provision. Any part of the settlement that prevents the disclosure of information about the harassment is not enforceable in court.30 This law is new. It went into effect on January 1, 2019.31

7. What is the statute of limitations for sexual harassment?

Lawsuits for sexual harassment have to be filed before the statute of limitations expires. Because these claims involve harassment that happens in the workplace, an administrative filing has to be made, first.

That administrative filing has to go to:

  • The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and/or
  • The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).

DFEH filings generally have to be made within three years of the most recent instance of sexual harassment. If the victim learns of the harassment after the three years has expired, they can have a 90-day extension to file.

EEOC filings have to be made within 180 days of the most recent incident of harassment. This window is extended to 300 days if a claim is also being filed with the DFEH.

The EEOC or DFEH will respond by either:

  • Conducting its own investigation of the incident, or
  • Issuing a right to sue letter that allows the victim to proceed with their own case.

Once a victim has received their right to sue letter, he or she has one year to file their lawsuit.32

Call us for help…

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Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

Sexual harassment is a common complaint in the workplace. In California, you have a right to work without being harassed. If you have endured sexual harassment, you may be entitled to compensation. Contact our California employment lawyers for further assistance.

Legal References:

  1. Holmes v. Petrovich Development Co., 191 Cal.App.4th 1047 (Cal. App. 2011).,

  2. See Mogilefsky v. Superior Court, 20 Cal.App.4th 1409 (Cal. App. 1993).

  3. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 2520.

  4. Mogilefsky v. Superior Court, Supra (“To state a cause of action on this theory, is it sufficient to allege that a term of employment was expressly or impliedly conditioned upon acceptance of a supervisor's unwelcome sexual advances”).

  5. Hughes v. Pair, 46 Cal.4th 1035 (Cal. 2009).

  6. Hughes v. Pair, Supra.

  7. Hughes v. Pair, Supra.

  8. California Government Code 12923(c), affirming Reid v. Google, Inc., 50 Cal.4th 512 (Cal. 2010).

  9. California Government Code 12923(e), affirming Nazir v. United Airlines, Inc., 178 Cal.App.4th 243 (Cal. App. 2009).

  10. California Government Code 12940(j). See also Miller v. Department of Corrections, 36 Cal.4th 446 (Cal. 2005) (“a hostile environment may be created even if the plaintiff never is subjected to sexual advances”) and Accardi v. Superior Court, 17 Cal.App.4th 341 (Cal. App. 1993).

  11. Miller v. Department of Corrections, Supra.

  12. California Government Code 12940, Department of Health Services v. Superior Court, 94 Cal.App.4th 14 (Cal. App. 2001).

  13. California Government Code 12940(j).

  14. California Government Code 12940(j).

  15. California Government Code 12940.

  16. California Senate Bill 1300.

  17. Mogilefsky v. Superior Court, 20 Cal.App.4th 1409 (Cal. App. 1993).

  18. Mogilefsky v. Superior Court, Supra.

  19. Singleton v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 140 Cal.App.4th 1547 (Cal. App. 2006).

  20. California Government Code 12940.

  21. California Government Code 12940(j)(1). See also Thompson v. City of Monrovia, 186 Cal.App.4th 860 (Cal. App. 2010).

  22. California Government Code 12923(a), affirming Harris v. Forklift Systems, 510 U.S. 17 (1993) (Ginsburg, concurring).

  23. See Guaio v. Dameron Hospital, No. C081755 (Cal. App. 2019).

  24. California Government Code 12964.5.

  25. California Senate Bill 1300.

  26. California Government Code 12964.5(b).

  27. California Government Code 12964.5(c)(1).

  28. California Government Code 12965(b).

  29. California Senate Bill 1300.

  30. California Code of Civil Procedure 1001.

  31. California Senate Bill 820.

  32. California Government Code 12960(d); California Assembly Bill 9 (2019).

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