Sexual Harassment: What to Do About It


In California sexual harassment is defined as a form of discrimination based on sex/gender (including pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions), gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation. Harassment falls into two categories:

Quid pro quo: when someone conditions a job, promotion, or other work benefit on your submission to unwelcome sexual advances or other conduct based on sex and which results in an economic loss if the victim does not submit to the advance; and

Hostile Work Environment: when unwelcome comments or conduct based on sex unreasonably interferes with your work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. You may experience sexual harassment even if the offensive conduct was not aimed directly at you.

We most often hear from women experiencing a hostile work environment (think Anita Hill).

California Law mandates that every employer have a clear complaint process and mechanism that does not require the employee to go to their regular supervisor. It also mandates that retaliation against women who complain or participate in an investigation is against the law and employers expose themselves to additional liability if they not only ignore harassment, but then retaliate against the victim.

The process is as follows:

  1. Report the improper conduct to your supervisor or human resources. If your company doesn’t have a human resources department, tell someone with authority about the harassment. Even though it is not required, we recommend that you put your complaint in writing and keep a copy.  Additionally, for your own records and to remember as many details as possible, it is recommended that you write down every instance of improper conduct, with date, time, location and witness names (if any).

  2. Your company should explain the investigation process, usually found in the employee handbook. If your company doesn’t have a clear process, remind them that in CA they are legally required to have one, no matter the size of the company.

  3. The investigation (which will be kept as confidential as possible) should result in a decision as to whether the harassment took place, and consequences to the perpetrator. Your employer should communicate the conclusions of the investigation to you.

  4. Call an attorney – even if you don’t end up hiring one – you’ll know your rights and have a better understanding of time limits. The CA Bar Association has a referral service and access to free legal services. So does the National Employment Lawyers Association.

We often hear from our members that they work for small companies without an HR department and/or no clear process for reporting harassment. We also hear that even when there is a clear process, women don’t report harassment because they don’t want to be perceived as whiny, not a team player, or a squeaky wheel. They think it will affect their career — and sometimes they are right (once again, retaliation is illegal).

If the internal reporting process does not result in satisfaction, then you should consider filing a formal complaint with Department of Fair Employment & Housing (DFEH) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) because if they get enough complaints about an individual, business or an industry they will launch an investigation.

Other approaches:

  1. Ask employer to hold a sexual harassment or unconscious bias training – the latter is a great way to get people to think differently about ingrained behavior patterns and take steps to change them. (If your company has 50 or more employees, they are required to conduct sexual harassment prevention training to supervisors every two years.)

  2. Enlist other employees (especially men) to talk to management about trainings – it will be more powerful if the request comes from a group. Also, talk to male allies about changing what men say to each other when women aren’t around.

  3. Look for a new job – this isn’t my favorite bit of advice – but some people and workplace cultures are too hard to change and you’ll ultimately be more successful if you can get out of that environment.

Finally, the best way to reduce sexual harassment is for leaders to change the culture of their company. First, mandate that harassment is unacceptable and that perpetrators will be held accountable and second, ensure that employee’s complaints will be heard and addressed, without retaliation.




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