Is Sexual Harassment a Form of Discrimination?
| Read Time: 4 minutes | Sexual Harassment

Is sexual harassment a form of discrimination? Yes, and it is illegal.

Sexual harassment is a nefarious and pervasive form of sex discrimination that has plagued this nation for decades. And since the #metoo movement took off in 2018, the federal government has seen a spike in workplace sexual harassment complaints. 

We do not share this information with you to scare you. We share this information to let you know that victims of sexual harassment are not alone and have the right to seek justice.

Federal and California sexual harassment laws protect you from sexual harassment in the workplace.

And at King & Siegel LLP, our attorneys fight strategically and aggressively for your ability to work in an environment free from harassment. Contact us today.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Workplace sexual harassment is illegal discrimination under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as unwelcome conduct that is based on sex. 

There are two main forms of sexual harassment:

  • Unwelcome conduct that you are forced to endure to keep your job or receive benefits (that is “quid pro quo” harassment); and
  • Unwelcome conduct that is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment. 

From these two main forms, workplace sexual harassment can rear its ugly head in a variety of ways. 

Sexual harassment can include:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances;
  • Requests for sexual favors;
  • Objectionable comments or physical conduct of a sexual nature; and
  • Offensive remarks about a person’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy.

Some harassment victims are also subject to employer retaliation. After a victim complains about harassment or refuses to accept a sexual advance, their employer might fire them, cut their benefits, or dole out unwarranted punishment.

Sexual harassment with or without retaliation is egregious, illegal, and deserving of legal repercussions.  

When Is an Employer Liable for Sexual Harassment?

Employers are liable for sexual harassment from their supervisors. In certain circumstances, employers are also liable for sexual harassment from non-supervisor employees, clients, customers, and contractors.

An employer is liable for harassment from non-supervisors and non-employees if the employer had control over the harasser, should have known about the harassment, and failed to take appropriate action.

Also, your harasser does not have to be of the opposite sex to be held accountable. And you do not have to be the target of unwelcome behavior to be a victim of sexual harassment.

Whether you are a bystander or a target, if a reasonable person would find that offensive behavior in your workplace created a hostile or abusive environment, you have a right to complain. 

The Steps to Filing a Sexual Harassment Complaint

If you are the victim of sexual harassment, you can file a complaint with the government and you can sue.

You must act quickly to reap the benefits of a complaint to the government or court, but you need to take certain steps before you complain. 

Step One: Tell the Harasser to Stop

In a sexual harassment complaint, you must prove that the harasser’s conduct was unwelcome or offensive. The first step to establishing this is letting your harasser know that their behavior is unwelcome and you want it to stop.

Unfair as it might be, judges are less inclined to side with you if it appears that you condoned offensive comments or conduct before filing your complaint.

Step Two: File an Internal Grievance

Filing an internal sexual harassment grievance with the proper authorities at work keeps your legal complaint viable. 

Sexual harassment complaints and many sexual harassment lawsuits are not against the individual harasser, but the employer.

Sometimes your employer has a complete defense against your sexual harassment complaint if they can prove:

  • They exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct harassment; and
  • You unreasonably failed to avoid harm or use complaint protocols the employer put in place. 

But if your supervisor is the only individual at work who handles grievances and they are your harasser, your employer can’t use your failure to file a grievance as a defense. 

Step Three: File a Complaint with the Government

California and the United States have dedicated resources to holding employers accountable for workplace sexual harassment.

You can file a federal complaint with the EEOC, or a state complaint with the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment (DFEH). 

If you win either complaint, you can receive:

  • Back pay,
  • Compensatory damages,
  • Job reinstatement, 
  • An order for policy/behavior changes at work,
  • Legal fees, and 
  • Punitive damages. 

If you want to file an EEOC complaint, your employer must have at least 15 employees, and you must file within 180 days (or 300 days if your complaint is also covered by state law).  

Step Four: File a Lawsuit

If you want to sue your employer, you must first receive a right-to-sue notice from the EEOC or the DFEH. Your attorney can help you speed up your receipt of this notice if you are ready to go to court right away. 

We Are Here to Make Your Workplace Safe

Our employment attorneys at King & Siegel are highly rated by the legal community and our clients. We serve the working communities of Sacramento and Los Angeles, and we have recovered millions for victims of workplace harassment.

Our education is top-notch, our training is top drawer, our tactics are top tier, and our results are top of the line. If you need a skilled and experienced advocate, contact us to schedule a consultation.

Author Photo

Julian Burns King graduated with honors from Harvard Law School and founded King & Siegel in 2018. As head of the Firm’s discrimination and harassment practice areas, she champions the rights of working parents and victims of workplace discrimination and harassment. She has been recognized as a “Rising Star” by Super Lawyers annually since 2018 and has recovered tens of millions of dollars on behalf of her clients.

Read More Articles by Julian Burns King