Federally, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 contains baseline protection for workers against sexual harassment. As HR Knowledge’s Guide to Sexual Harassment Prevention for Employers booklet states, conduct that many people may consider simply distasteful could qualify legally as sexual harassment.
The legal definition of sexual harassment
While California state law prohibits sexual harassment on an individual scale, Title VII only applies to employers with 15 or more employees. It covers two primary forms of sexual harassment: “quid pro quo” harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment.
In quid pro quo harassment, sexual activity is exchanged for increased benefits, pay, title, position or any other advancement opportunity. Even if there’s only an implicit expectation and not an explicit agreement, this conduct is not lawful.
A hostile work environment can be created simply by making employees’ jobs difficult through inappropriate behavior. This behavior can include inappropriate or obscene gestures, sexual jokes, unsolicited physical contact or gender-based jokes. Hostile work environments are subjective as they’re created only when they’re severe or pervasive enough to significantly distract at least one employee from performing his or her job duties.
Employer responsibilities regarding sexual harassment
California is one of a handful of states that specifically requires employers to have an anti-harassment policy published. Employers are obligated to watch for behavior that could constitute a hostile workplace or suspected “quid pro quo” conduct.
If an employee is harassed out of a job, an employer who didn’t take proactive prevention steps might be liable for civil damages both on the federal and the state levels. An individual with questions about holding their employer accountable may want to talk to an employment law attorney.