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Sexual Harassment Information Center

Your Guide to Understanding Sexual Harassment Claims

What Is “Sexual Harassment?”

Generally, “sexual harassment” means unwanted conduct of a sexual nature. The key word in that sentence is “unwanted.” Harassing conduct can take many forms, including verbal (such as obscene language, demeaning comments, or threats); physical (such as unwanted touching, assault, or blocking movement); visual (such as offensive posters, drawings, or objects); unwanted sexual advances; and many other things.

In addition to being unwanted, the harassing conduct, under California law, must also be either “severe” or “pervasive.” To be severe or pervasive, the harassing conduct must alter the conditions of employment and create a hostile or abusive work environment. It is a jury’s job to decide whether harassing conduct meets the test of “severe or pervasive.” Factors to consider are the nature of the conduct; how often, and over what period of time, the conduct occurred; the context in which the conduct occurred; whether physical threats were involved; whether the conduct was humiliating; and the extent to which the conduct interfered with the employee’s work performance.

Finally, not only must the employee find the conduct to be offensive, but a jury must also find that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would also have been offended by the alleged harassing conduct. This “reasonable person” standard prevents an overly-sensitive person from collecting money for conduct that most people in society would not have found to be offensive.

The aforementioned type of sexual harassment is typically referred to by lawyers as “hostile work environment” sexual harassment.  It is the most common kind of sexual harassment case.  There is another kind of sexual harassment, however, known as “quid pro quo” sexual harassment, in which the employee’s job or job-related benefits depend on the employee’s acceptance of the sexual advances or conduct.  An obvious example would be where the male supervsor of a female employee tells her that he will choose her for a promotion if she sleeps with him.

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