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What Is Sexual Harassment?

This guide is for information only and is not legal advice. Legal advice must be tailored to specific facts. This guide is based on general legal principles and does not address all possible claims, exceptions or conditions related to the subject matter discussed.

by Marilynn Mika Spencer

Most everyone knows that workplace sexual harassment is against the law. But what exactly is sexual harassment?

The clearest form of sexual harassment is quid pro quo harassment. “Quid pro quo” is Latin for “what for what,” referring to an exchange of one thing for another. In employment discrimination law, “quid pro quo” refers to situations where an employee has to submit to unwelcome sexual advances or acts in order to keep a job or advance on the job. It can refer to requests for sexual favors, unwelcome sexual advances or propositions.

Another kind of sexual harassment is environmental harassment. Environmental harassment can include verbal conduct, slurs, derogatory comments, comments or questions about a person's body, appearance, or sexual activity. Environmental harassment can also include offensive gestures, sexually suggestive eye contact or looks, and derogatory or graphic posters, cartoons or drawings.

Environmental harassment is unlawful when the unwelcome sexual conduct is either severe or pervasive enough to create an abusive environment. Severe conduct would include most physical contact and many types of threatening, vulgar or degrading conduct. Pervasive conduct is widespread, happens frequently and/or in many situations. One offensive statement is not pervasive, but the same comment made over and over again may be pervasive.

California and federal law both prohibit workplace sexual harassment. California’s prohibition against sexual harassment is found in the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, California Government Code sections 12900, et seq. (FEHA). The federal prohibition is in the Civil Right Act of 1964, Title VII 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e–17.

Work-related sexual harassment can take place at the workplace or in any other location, as long as it arises from the employment relationship.

Either men or women can engage in sexual harassment, and the conduct can be directed against an employee of the opposite sex or of the same sex. However, sexual harassment does not have to be directed at anyone in particular if it is widespread throughout the workplace.

The same laws also protect individuals who complain about or report sexual harassment. It is unlawful to retaliate against an individual who makes this kind of complaint or report.

For more information on sexual harassment in California, visit the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing web site. For more information on the federal law prohibiting sexual harassment, visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) web site.

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