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California Workplace Harassment Laws – Don’t Be a Victim: Know Your Rights

Emanuel Shirazi

Employees have a responsibility to complete the requirements of the position for which they were hired; however, employers also have responsibilities to their employees. Employers must ensure the workplace is free of harassment, as this type of employment discrimination is illegal on both a state and federal level. To be considered workplace harassment, the misconduct must meet certain parameters. Speaking with an employment attorney can help you determine if your situation meets the requirements of workplace harassment and what routes you have for collecting damages.

Workplace Harassment

It is important to clarify what behavior qualifies as workplace harassment and what behavior is legally considered an annoyance. Behavior such as minor slights or jokes that are not extremely offensive is not likely to rise to illegal territory. Favoritism or preferential treatment not based on a protected class will also generally not be considered illegal. Though these actions may make your workplace unpleasant, this type of misconduct does not constitute workplace harassment.

A person directing inappropriate, negative, or unwanted conduct at a worker due to certain protected characteristics is considered unlawful workplace harassment. Harmful workplace policies that also target individuals for those protected classes also fall under the workplace harassment umbrella. California law has outlined the following classes and characteristics as being protected:

  • Race
  • National Origin
  • Color
  • Ancestry
  • Marital Status
  • Religion
  • Military or Veteran Status
  • Genetic Information
  • Sex/ Gender
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Gender Identity/ Expression
  • Physical and/ or Mental Disability
  • Medical Condition
  • Age, If The Targeted Employee Is Over 40 Years Old
  • Reproductive Health Decision-Making (Jan 1, 2024)

Ultimately, workplace harassment occurs when a condition of employment forces an employee to work in an offensive environment, and the misconduct is offensive enough that a reasonable person would consider it an intimidating or hostile work environment.

Relevant Workplace Harassment Laws

There are several state and federal laws that protect employees from workplace harassment:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
    A federal law that outlaws discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, or religion.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
    A federal law that protects individuals with physical and mental disabilities from harassment and discrimination based on their disability.
  • Age Discrimination Act
    A federal law that prohibits age-related harassment and discrimination against workers over the age of 40.
  • The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)
    A California state law that handles many types of harassment and discrimination faced by job applicants, employees, unpaid interns, and some independent contractors. This law outlines the protected classes listed above.
  • The California Constitution
    This document prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, creed, color, nationality, or ethnic origin.

Though it is possible to bring a harassment claim under the California Constitution, it is much more commonly handled under FEHA or Title VII. In most instances, the rules under FEHA offer the most protection for employee rights, or at least equal protection as that offered under Title VII. Most Californian workers choose to file under FEHA because it does not cap the amount of recoverable damages in harassment lawsuits.

Defining and Proving Harassment

The protected classes and characteristics define the prohibited motives for harassment. The laws that prohibit harassment in the workplace do not define which actions are unlawful, but instead, what motives are unlawful. Because there is no specific line for what actions constitute harassment, it must be shown the harassment was objectively abusive or hostile and subjectively offensive, distressing, or humiliating. Though some actions are hostile enough to constitute workplace harassment as a single event, most cases need to show a pattern of harassment.

Proving harassment does not require that the employee show economic injury or removal from employment. In addition, the victim does not have to be the direct recipient of the harassing behavior. To have a valid harassment claim that you can hold your employer responsible for, you must show the harassment came from a supervisor or that the employer knew about the harassment and took no action to prevent it. In instances where the employer was negligent in preventing the harassment, they can be held liable for the actions of anyone tied to the company, including other workers, clients, and some independent contractors.


Q: What Are Some Examples of Workplace Harassment?

A: Laws that prohibit workplace harassment do not generally state specific actions but instead clearly define unlawful motivations. This means many, many different behaviors can be considered harassment if the victim was targeted for a protected characteristic or class. Examples include using racial slurs, insults pertaining to a person’s sexual orientation, not hiring anyone from a national origin, or quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Q: What Must Be Included in a Company’s Written Policy Regarding the Prevention of Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation?

A: The written policy must include information like the protected classes covered in FEHA, the complaint process, and the company’s process once it receives an allegation of misconduct. The policy must also create a route for reporting misconduct that does not require the employee to report it to their direct supervisor and instruct supervisors to report any complaints to a designated company representative.

Q: What Happens if My Employer Takes No Action After They Have Been Notified of Misconduct?

A: Employers are required to conduct a timely, fair, and thorough investigation into the complaint. If the claim is substantiated, the offender should be disciplined, transferred to another department, or fired. If the employer chooses not to conduct the investigation or penalize the offenders, they can be held legally liable for the misconduct. This opens the employer to an employment lawsuit filed by the victim(s).

Q: Do I Need an Attorney to File a Workplace Harassment Lawsuit?

A: Yes. Absolutely 100%.

Protecting Your Rights

Shirazi Law Firm, PC, is passionate about protecting employee rights by helping our clients take legal action against employers that allow workplace harassment. If you are in need of an employment attorney to examine your case and help you move forward, contact our skilled team today.

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