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Harassment in all its forms can be a traumatic event that makes coming to work an anxiety-inducing, dreaded event and cause an employee’s job performance to suffer. It can also inflict physical and emotional damage on the victim of unlawful harassment such as depression, suicidal thoughts, PTSD, and panic attacks. Permitting this behavior also perpetuates, accepts, or even encourages continuation of the destructive behavior within the workplace.

Federal and state governments recognize the damage this behavior and passed laws prohibiting it and penalizing people and employers who engage in the behavior. However, despite the laws in place harassment is still commonplace according to the EEOC. If you have been the victim of workplace harassment, contact an experienced California employment attorney to see if you may be entitled to damages.

What is Unlawful Harassment?

Surprisingly, behavior that is simply inconsiderate, intimidating, aggressive, or just plain rude is not unlawful unless it’s proven that it occurred for a reason prohibited by law. This means offensive jokes, belittling, unreasonable deadlines, yelling, ignoring, or even name calling is not necessarily against the law. For conduct to fall into the category of unlawful harassment and be legally actionable, it must be directed at someone either because they:

  • Engaged in some type of protected conduct, or
  • They were part of a specifically named protected class.
California’s Workplace Harassment Standard

In California, it’s unlawful to harass an employee – either through unwanted comments or conduct directed towards their status in a protected class of people – to the level it becomes severe or persistent enough that a reasonable person would find it changes the workplace and makes it hostile, intimidating, or offensive for the harassed employee because of their protected status. According to the EEOC, this means that petty annoyances, isolated instances that are not extremely serious, and slights are not enough to violate the law.

Protected Classes Defined

Several classes of people are protected based on race, gender, religion, and other various characteristics employees may possess. It’s illegal to target an employee due to their:

  • Religion, including religious beliefs, physical style or manner of dress, or requirements related to worship practice,
  • Disability,
  • Gender, sexual preference, or sexual conduct, or
  • Race, national origin, color, or culture – including accent, hygienic practices, or cultural dress
Types of Unlawful Harassment

All unlawful harassment targets the employee’s membership in a protected class. However, when there is a sexual component to the behavior it’s given thee specific label of “sexual harassment.”

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is unique in the fact that though it still results in the creation of a hostile work environment for the victimized employee, it may be done with the additional purpose of sexually exploiting the employee in some way. Sometimes sexual harassment is just the creation of a hostile work environment through behavior such as: crude sexual gestures, unwanted sexual advantages, sexually explicit joke, sexually suggestive comments about another employee’s clothes or body, or unwanted touching. Other times, there is a coercive component that is called quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Quid pro quo harassment takes place between the employee and either a supervisor or someone who has a position of power over the victim. When it occurs, the person in power pressures the employee to enter an exchange of sexual conduct for benefits on the job. Quid pro quo sexual harassment commonly plays out through manipulation. The employee:

  • Is promised a raise, advantage at work, better office, or a promotion if they will engage in a sexual relationship with the harasser,
  • Are required to engage in a sexual relationship to either get a job, keep their existing job, or receive a promotion, or
  • Are fired, demoted, or otherwise subjected to a hostile work environment in retaliation for their refusal to enter or continue a sexual relationship with the perpetrator.
Racially Charged or National Origin Harassment

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, harassment based on someone’s race or national origin is prohibited. It does not just apply to the employee being harassed but anyone affected by the conduct. However, it still must rise to the level of creating a hostile work environment to be unlawful. Unlike sexual harassment, which must be perpetrated by a coworker, supervisor, or someone else in position of power at the workplace, this type of harassment may be committed by non-employees such as customers and require corrective measures from the victim’s employer.

Even if the harassed employee is not actually of the race or national origin targeted by the harasser, it is still unlawful harassment if the harasser believes the victim is and targets them on that basis. Common examples of racial or national origin harassment may include:

  • Racial slurs,
  • Physical threats tied to the victim’s race or national origin,
  • Epithets,
  • Offensive jokes based on the victim’s race or national origin, or
  • Displaying images or objects that are either racist or denigrate someone’s national origin.
Who Is Liable?

If a coworker commits the harassment, the employer won’t be liable unless they were given the chance to correct the problem but fail to do so. However, if a supervisor is perpetrating the harassment then employer liability can be imputed even if you don’t report the harassment to your employer.

Steps to Take if You Are Being Harassed At Work

If you are being harassed at work, it is important you put your employer on notice and allow them the chance to correct the behavior. Not only does it provide evidence you were being harassed, in most cases it is required before bringing a suit. Report through your Human Resources Department or use whatever procedure is in place at work for reporting the behavior.

Make sure your report is written and keep a copy of the email or written document you submitted. It may also be helpful to keep a personal journal documenting the harassment and details such as dates, specific language used, and witness names. You’ll be asked to recount details later, so it’s helpful to have a way to refresh your memory.

Finally, contact an employment law attorney for advice on whether to pursue an administrative complaint, if a civil lawsuit is advisable, and the next steps in your situation.

Contact a Lawyer

If you are the victim of workplace harassment, it is important you take steps to protect yourself and others, put a stop to the behavior, and hold the perpetrator accountable. The skilled California employment lawyers at Walton Law, APC can help you. Contact us 24/7 by calling (866) 338-7079 or using our Contact Us page to schedule your risk free case review. The consultation is free, and you don’t pay until we win your case. Let our attorneys review explain your options, answer your questions, and secure the best possible outcome for you starting today.

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