If you’ve been sexually harassed at work, it can be embarrassing, intimidating, and stressful. Sexual harassment is against the law both on the state and federal level, and offenders should always be held accountable. In California alone, there were 554 sexual harassment complaints filed with the state agency in 2016 according to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Filing a California sexual harassment claim can be confusing, as it differs from traditional lawsuits. There are deadlines and a lot of “red tape” to cut through on your way to justice. But, the process is worth it if you wish to hold the offender accountable.

What is Sexual Harassment?

The dictionary definition of sexual harassment is, harassment (typically of a woman) in a workplace, or other professional or social situation, involving the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it is illegal to harass someone because of the person’s sex; this includes unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and any other verbal or non-verbal harassment of a sexual nature. This can also include harassment not of sexual nature but based on one’s sex.  While the law does not forbid light teasing or the occasional offhand comment, if the behavior is persistent enough to cause a hostile work environment, it can be considered sexual harassment.

Although the dictionary definition of sexual harassment mentions that victims are typically women – a harasser can be either a man or woman, and the victim can be of the same or opposite sex. Harassers can also be the victim’s boss, supervisor, colleague, or client or customer of the company.

California Sexual Harassment Laws

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (also referred to as just Title VII) prohibits discrimination and/or harassment based on someone’s gender (among other traits). On the federal level, this law applies to public and private companies with 15 or more employees, but that can be changed by state law.

California has one of the toughest protections of workers in the country, by adopting the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and outright prohibiting any form of sexual harassment. FEHA prohibits sexual harassment in any public or private company with 1 or more employees – ensuring all companies operating in the state are held to the highest standard.

Steps to Take If You’re Sexually Harassed at Work

  • Say No – If another employee or supervisor makes an unwanted sexual advance or comment at you – say NO very clearly. By firmly refusing any and all invitations, you are giving the harasser a chance to stop the behavior before it becomes harassment.
  • Record the Incident – If the harasser’s behavior continues, record the incidents on paper so you can start a paper trail of the offenses. This can come in handy if you decide to follow through with a lawsuit down the road.
  • Report the Incident to Your Employer – Tell your supervisor, boss, human resources department or another department with authority about the harassment. You MUST report the harassment to your organization before you can file a lawsuit or take further action. In California, employers are responsible for creating a safe working environment, and this includes taking all steps necessary to end sexual harassment within the company. This is also a good time to show your written documentation of previous offenses by the harasser and begin an “official” paper trail by your employer.
  • Find Out About Your Employer’s Complaint Procedures – Most companies have policies about how to properly deal with sexual harassment complaints within the organization. When reporting the incident to your employer, it’s a good time to ask to see these policies. By following the reporting procedures your company has, you can easily prove to a judge that you took the steps necessary to properly inform your employer of the harassment and give them a chance to stop it.
  • File a Complaint with a Government Agency – After you have reported the ongoing harassment to your employer, you may file a “Discrimination Complaint” with a federal or state court. First, you must file a formal sexual harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as well as with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). Federal employees must follow federal guidelines through the EEOC when filing their sexual harassment claims. It’s important to be aware of DEADLINES in a sexual harassment case. According to the federal EEOC, you have 300 days from the sexual harassment act to file a complaint. However in California, you have ONE YEAR from the date of the last offense to file a complaint.
  • File a Civil Lawsuit – After filing a formal complaint (as noted above), you may also file a civil lawsuit against the offender and/or your employer if they failed to take action to stop the harassment. Damages for a civil sexual harassment lawsuit can range from monetary damages to making your employer change their policies about handling sexual harassment. Contacting a California sexual harassment lawyer in your area is the best way to begin your civil lawsuit.

If at any point you get confused, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) has step-by-step instructions on how to move through the complaint process. You can find the information here, or by calling the DFEH Communication Center at 800-884-1684.