What is workplace harassment in California employment law?
Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (the “FEHA”), workplace harassment occurs when someone in the workplace mistreats another person based on their gender, race, national origin, sexual orientation or other prohibited category (religious creed, color, ancestry, physical or mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, age or military status), in a way that falls outside the job description of the person committing the harassment.
The legal definition of harassment under California labor and employment law encompasses two types of behavior:
- The “quid pro quo” form of sexual harassment, in which a supervisor makes certain employment benefits contingent on the performance of sexual favors or behavior; and
- The “hostile work environment” form of harassment, in which one party in the workplace engages in severe or pervasive offensive behavior that alters the work environment for another employee. (Hostile work environment harassment can be either sexual or non-sexual harassment, and this form of harassment can be committed by non-supervisors as well as by supervisors).
What both forms of workplace harassment have in common is that they involve behavior that is irrelevant to the actual job duties of the person doing the harassing. Harassment is a form of workplace bullying. It happens as part of interpersonal interactions in the workplace–not as part of official actions by or on behalf of employers.
What are my rights under the FEHA if I experience harassment at work?
First, you should report the harassment or discrimination to someone at your employer–a supervisor, a supervisor’s supervisor, a human resource, or an equal employment opportunity manager.
If your supervisor is the one committing harassment or discrimination, your employer must provide you with an alternative channel for complaints.
Reporting the harassment or discrimination to your employer may result in the situation being resolved if the employer responds appropriately to your harassment or discrimination complaint.
But if the problem is not resolved internally, then your next step is to File a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”).
This step applies regardless of whether you are dealing with harassment or discrimination (or both). Generally, the complaint must be filed within three (3) years of the harassment or discrimination.
Finally, you may file a civil lawsuit against your employer or the individual(s) who harassed or discriminated against you, once DFEH issues you a “right to sue” notice.