All employees have the right to work in a safe environment free of harassment and discrimination. California law prohibits the harassment of and discrimination against employees, job applicants, unpaid interns, volunteers and independent contractors. Harassment and discrimination can come from employers, employees and even clients or customers. The law also requires employers to take reasonable steps to prevent harassment and discrimination.
What are harassment and discrimination?
The California Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA, prohibits sexual harassment and other forms of unlawful discrimination. It applies to both workplaces and housing. The FEHA protects employees from discrimination based on protected classes. In California, it is illegal for your employer to discriminate against you based on your:
- National origin
- Gender identity
- Gender expression
- Sexual orientation
- Marital status
- Physical and mental disability
- Genetic information and medical conditions
- Military or veteran status
- Age if over 40
Illegal discrimination is the unfair treatment of someone because of their status as a member of a protected class. Acts of discrimination generally fall into one of three categories. Hostile work environment discrimination is when an employee is so harassed or discriminated against that they no longer feel safe in their workplace. Quid pro quo discrimination is when an employer promises some sort of benefit in exchange for some sort of behavior. An example of this is a hiring manager who promises to hire a candidate if she will engage in sexual behavior with him. Harassment is a type of discrimination, since it contributes to a hostile work environment. Illegal harassment can include abusive conduct, or bullying, sexual harassment, or any other type of harassment based on any protected class. Employers are required to act when they learn of or reasonably should have known about acts of harassment and discrimination in their workplaces.
What is sexual harassment?
California state regulations define sexual harassment as any unwanted sexual advances or visual, verbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. This definition includes many forms of offensive behavior, and includes gender-based harassment, regardless of the genders of the victim and harasser. Sexual harassment includes, but is not limited to:
- Unwelcome sexual advances
- Offering employment benefits in exchange for sexual favors
- Crude gestures
- Displaying sexually suggestive objects, pictures, cartoons, or posters
- Derogatory comments, epithets, slurs and jokes
- Graphic comments
- Sexually degrading words
- Suggestive or obscene messages and invitations
- Physical touching or assault
- Impeding or blocking movements
The law doesn’t prohibit simple or infrequent teasing, offhand comments or isolated incidents that aren’t very serious. Harassment is illegal when it becomes so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment. It is also illegal when it results in an adverse employment decision. An example of this is if an employer fires or demotes a victim of harassment. Harassment doesn’t have to be sexual in nature to still be illegal. For example, it’s illegal to harass a woman by making constant, pervasive offensive comments about women in general. This is true even if the comments were not sexual in nature and if the offender has no sexual interest in the woman.
To help prevent and correct harassment and discrimination in the workplace, all employers are required to develop a harassment, discrimination, and retaliation prevention policy. This policy must be in writing, list all protected groups under the FEHA, and explain who the laws apply to. It must also explain your workplace’s complaint procedure. This policy must require supervisors and managers to report any complaints of misconduct to a designated company representative. It must also explain that employees cannot be retaliated against for making a complaint or participating in an investigation.
To prevent harassment and discrimination in the workplace, employers must provide all supervisors and managers with extensive training. Supervisors are required to report incidents of harassment and discrimination to their employers, and employers are required to launch an investigation into claims of harassment and discrimination.
For more information, click the following links:
- Sexual Harassment FAQs
- Transgender Rights in the Workplace
- California Law Prohibits Workplace Discrimination and Harassment
SafetySkills covers these topics and more in our Sexual Harassment for Managers in California and our Sexual Harassment for Employees in California courses. For more information about the manager course, click here. For more information about the employee course, click here.