Workplace Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. Briefly, sexual harassment refers to both unwelcome sexual advances, or other visual, verbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature and actions that create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment based on an employee’s sex. Under California law, the offensive conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire, but may be based upon an employee’s actual or perceived sex or gender-identity, actual or perceived sexual orientation, and/or pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. This definition includes many forms of offensive behavior and includes gender-based harassment of a person of the same sex as the harasser, and actions that subject co-workers to a hostile work environment.

What you can do if you’re a victim

If you are experiencing harassment in the workplace, know that you have options and support when you decide to come forward.

  • If your company has a sexual harassment policy, read it and take action accordingly. Put complaints in writing and keep records of each incident of harassment, noting the date and time and any people involved.
  • Inform your employer about the harassment, pursuant to the options and requirements set out in the sexual harassment policy, if such a policy exists. In some cases, failure to report the conduct in any way may impact your ability to further pursue remedies against your employer. Nevertheless, supervisors and coworkers remain personally liable for their own acts of harassment.
  • File a complaint with the appropriate state or federal agency. You don’t need a lawyer to take this step.
    • The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is the state agency charged with protecting Californians from unlawful discrimination in employment. If there has been a violation of civil rights laws, DFEH can pursue damages on your behalf. You may file a complaint with DFEH online, by mail, or over the phone.
    • The Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal antidiscrimination laws. Their website has information on filing complaints.
    • Complaints filed with DFEH or EEOC are automatically cross-filed with the other agency. You only need to submit one complaint.
    • After your complaint is evaluated, your case may be accepted for investigation. The other party is then required to respond to your complaint, and DFEH or EEOC will review the response with you. If the response is unsatisfactory and a violation of federal or California law occurred, the case will be forwarded to the legal division for mediation and a possible lawsuit.
  • If you are a victim of sexual assault:
    • Call 911 if you are in a life-threatening situation.
    • Report the incident to local police.
    • See a healthcare provider as soon as possible to receive a health exam and appropriate care.
    • Call a crisis hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673).
    • Seek confidential support from your employer or community resources.
    • Seek out friends and family.
    • See other resources.

Employer resources

Employers with more than 50 employees are required to provide two hours of sexual harassment prevention training to all supervisory employees every two years. More information on this required training can be found on DFEH’s website.

Legal information