Sexual Harassment at Work

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Sexual Harassment at Work


Sexual harassment is broadly defined as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” which is required as a term of an individual’s employment or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

Sexual harassment is a form of gender discrimination and is prohibited in employment under both Federal and California law. Importantly, sexual harassment does not have to be overtly sexual. Sexual harassment includes, for example, harassment of members of one gender even in a non-sexual way. The harasser can be a man or a woman or even the same gender as the victim.

There are two main categories of sexual harassment:

  1. quid pro quo; and
  2. hostile work environment

Both forms of sexual harassment are illegal in the workplace.


Quid pro quo harassment typically occurs when a supervisor makes a request for sexual favors in return for a positive employment action such as:

  • raise in pay;
  • promotion;
  • positive job review;
  • more favorable hours; or
  • better job duties;

This form of harassment may involve a direct or implied threat of retaliation if the employee doesn’t submit to the “terms” of the agreement. This may be a one-time event or an ongoing pattern.


Harassment involving a hostile work environment occurs when unwelcome sexual attention or behavior alters the working conditions so as to make it more difficult to work. The harassment may also unreasonably interfere with the employee’s job performance. These cases generally involve many offensive acts over time, although in some circumstances, a case may involve a single act that is particularly abusive or threatening. Examples of unwelcome behavior include:

  • sexual looks or gestures;
  • letters, telephone calls, or materials of a sexual nature;
  • whistling or catcalling at someone;
  • sexual teasing, jokes, remarks, or questions;
  • suggestive signals;
  • hugging, kissing, patting, or stroking;
  • telling lies or spreading rumors about a person’s personal sex life;
  • sexual comments about a person’s clothing, anatomy, or looks;
  • repeatedly asking out a person who is not interested; or
  • referring to an adult as a girl, hunk, doll, babe, or honey


A company is responsible for harassment by a supervisor that involves a tangible, adverse employment action like termination, demotion, pay cut, etc. This responsibility is on the company whether or not you complain and whether or not the company knows about the harassment.

However, you cannot hold the company responsible for a co-worker’s harassment unless the company

  1. failed to address your complaints about the coworker, or
  2. did not give you a way to complain about the co-worker’s harassment


Sexual harassment at work is illegal. If you believe you’ve been the victim of sexual harassment at work call the Law Office of Jeannette A. Vaccaro for a free consultation at (415) 444-5800 or visit our website.

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