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Sexual Harassment: Important Answers to Your Questions

Sexual harassment is a form of illegal sex discrimination according to both federal and California law. Sexual harassment takes different forms. Most people realize that if an employer, supervisor, or co-worker touches a female employee’s breasts, this is sexual harassment; but there is much more to it.

What is Sexual Harassment?

The following are all examples of illegal sexual harassment:

  • Propositioning for dates or sex
  • Telling inappropriate sexual jokes or making inappropriate sexual remarks
  • Bringing into the workplace pornographic pictures, materials, or images
  • Touching inappropriately including, in some cases, hugging, kissing, rubbing against someone, caressing one’s shoulders or back, or other unwanted physical contact
  • Requiring employees to wear certain suggestive clothing
  • Gawking or leering
  • Making inappropriate comments about an employee’s appearance
  • Making statements that women are inferior to men (or vice-versa)
  • Attempting to use one’s position as a supervisor to obtain an employee’s acceptance of sexually inappropriate behavior or an employee’s romantic affections

Although it is usually men who sexually harass women, sexual harassment can also include women harassing men, men harassing men, or women harassing women. The perpetrator may be a heterosexual or a homosexual. In the end, sexual harassment occurs whenever someone is subjected to sexually inappropriate behavior because of one’s gender.

What should I do?

If you’ve experienced sexual harassment on the job, you have a responsibility to inform your employer of it (i.e., complain). Doing so is important because, under the law, if employers do not know about the harassment, then they can’t take appropriate and immediate steps to remedy the situation. If they haven’t been given that chance, they may not face liability for the conduct even if it is proved that it occurred.

What if my employer retaliates against me?

An employee has an absolute right to complain about harassment without fear of retaliation by his or her employer. Even if it is found that the conduct did not rise to the level of “harassment,” an employer cannot retaliate against an employee for having brought the complaint. Retaliation may include a termination close in time to the complaint, denial of promotions, pay raises, work assignments or leaves of absence, heightened scrutiny of performance, or other similar detrimental action.

What if the sexual harassment continues?

Before you can sue, you have to file a complaint with either the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). Both agencies are charged with investigating such complaints. This is designed to give the employer time to remedy its conduct prior to being sued.

Do I need a lawyer?

If you believe you have taken all the necessary steps and are still unsatisfied with the result, you may need to seek legal counsel about the feasibility of filing a lawsuit. Both Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act give employees a right to sue an employer for violations of their rights and permit recovery of past lost wages and benefits, future wage loss, emotional distress damages, attorney fees and possibly punitive damages, if a violation has been found.