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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

What defines inappropriate behavior in the workplace? Learn the difference between harassment, assault, and misconduct, and what you can do about it with the help of an experienced attorney.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a prevalent problem. In fact, a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found that 38% of women had experienced sexual harassment while on the job. However, it is a gender-neutral offense that spans a wide range of industries.

Every person has the right to work in a safe environment, regardless of age, gender, race, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation.

The sexual assault lawyers at The Pride Law Firm provide complimentary legal consultations to any person who has suffered sexual harassment in the workplace or assault by a coworker. We have over 35 years of combined experience focused solely on representing sexual assault survivors.

Please understand that we consider “harassment” and “assault” synonymous when it comes to these acts in the workplace. Reach out to our San Diego, California offices by filling out our online form or by calling (619) 516-8166. When you’re not sure where to turn, you can turn to us.

A woman sits at her desk stressed out while a male and female coworker comment behind her back.

What Defines Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is constituted as any type of unwelcome request, conduct, or sexual advance based on gender or sex discrimination. It is a form of sexual discrimination that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment and violates state and federal laws.

Types of sexual harassment can be implicit (subtle) or explicit, and typically falls under one of two categories:

  • Quid pro quo: This is a Latin term meaning “this for that.” In the workplace, this type of sexual harassment happens when conditions are placed on a person’s career or terms of employment in exchange for demanded favors. It includes threats of adverse action if the person doesn’t comply with the conditions, and sometimes promises favorable actions if the person does.One example would be offering paid time off to a subordinate, but only in exchange for a sexual favor.
  • Hostile work environment: A hostile environment occurs when a person is subjected to offensive, unwanted, and unsolicited comments or conduct of a sexual nature. It brings the topic of sex or gender into the workplace in any number of forms and might include nonviolent, gender-biased sexual behaviors. This can include degrading comments about a particular gender and can occur in multiple settings, including via email.

Both of these forms of harassment come with intimidation tactics. Such bullying can cause survivors to suffer profound emotions that impact their job performance or career options. It’s common for a survivor to fear losing their job or network if they tell about the harassment.

The longer a survivor tolerates this type of behavior, the more likely it is to escalate into sexual assault. It’s vitally important that all of your rights are protected, because when predators are given an inch, they’re emboldened to take a mile.

Sexual Harassment, Sexual Assault, and Sexual Misconduct: What’s the Difference?

Sexual harassment, assault, and misconduct are similar and sometimes interrelated forms of workplace transgressions. The lines between these three terms are not always easy to define, but we have provided examples below:

1. Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a form of gender discrimination. Sexual harassment in the workplace might be unwanted attention, remarks, requests, or conduct of a sexual nature. For the most part, harassment is more verbal, though it can include unwanted touching, bumping, caressing, or pinching.

Examples of sexual harassment in the workplace include:

  • Sharing sexual or inappropriate images, emails, jokes, or videos
  • Making sexual gestures
  • Unwanted hugs or shoulder massages
  • Whistling or catcalling
  • Staring in a suggestive manner or looking a person up and down
  • Blocking a person’s walking path or walkway
  • “Accidentally” brushing up against a person
  • Asking questions of a sexual nature
  • Sharing unsolicited information about your personal sex life or activity

Sexual harassment is a civil offense, not a criminal one, and is largely limited to a workplace setting. You can find justice by pursuing a civil lawsuit against the individual and/or the company depending on your circumstances.

2. Sexual Assault

Sexual assault involves unsolicited, intentional sexual contact, or behavior while using force, intimidation, or abuse of authority in any setting. It carries a higher level of consequence than sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, and falls under strict domestic violence laws in California.

Examples of workplace sexual assault can occur with and without sexual contact, including when a coworker or boss:

  • Forces him or herself onto you without consent, involving sexual contact of any nature
  • Penetrates without consent any part of the survivor’s body, whether vaginal, anal, or oral
  • Sexually coerces the survivor by guilting, obligating, threatening, or manipulating him or her into sexual activity
  • Exposes him or herself with the intent to gratify self or offend the survivor. Federal law does not consider this sexual assault; however, it is a crime in California under the Indecent Exposure Law
  • Masturbates in front of another when it is not welcome, similar to the Indecent Exposure Law where the survivor is forced to witness unwanted exposure
  • Uses drugs or other substances to impair a survivor to compromise his or her ability to consent to sexual activity

Sexual assault mainly refers to unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature. However, physical contact is not always necessary for an incident to qualify as assault. We cover more on this in the next section of examples.

3. Sexual Misconduct

Sexual misconduct is a general term that can encompass either sexual harassment or assault and is the broader category of the three. It can happen on and off work premises. Misconduct involves any type of requests, advances, slurs, jokes, name-calling, crude remarks, or innuendos of sexual nature that a reasonable person would find inappropriate in the workplace.

Examples of sexual misconduct may be when a coworker or boss:

  • Demands sexual favors of any kind in return for a pay raise
  • Repeatedly asks a worker out, even though he or she is told “no”
  • Belittles a worker with sexist or demeaning terms or comments about clothing or appearance
  • Sends emails to workers that contain sexually explicit language, images, or jokes
  • Threatens a resistant employee with termination, deportation, or a poor job evaluation
  • Touches, rubs, or caresses a worker when it isn’t welcome

When inappropriate behavior can’t technically be classified in a legal sense as either sexual harassment or assault, it might be deemed sexual misconduct. It is typically less than assault but greater than harassment.

These horrendous acts not only violate the survivor, they also compromise the work environment. Sexual harassment, assault, and misconduct create an oppressive work atmosphere, detract from productivity levels, and negatively impact team morale and attendance.

For help in dealing with workplace sexual harassment, contact The Pride Law Firm at (619) 516-8166, or start a confidential chat right here on your screen.

What Do You Do if You Are Sexually Harassed at Work?

Reporting sexual harassment is an important first step in asserting your rights in the face of workplace misconduct. The processes for reporting sexual harassment in the workplace versus sexual assault will vary.

Reporting Sexual Harassment

If you’ve been harassed, you should first use your employer’s reporting system to report the assault. Taking this first step is critical, since waiting to do so can interfere with your chance to seek compensation for your suffering.

If your employer doesn’t have a reporting system, and as a second step, you’ll want to report the incident to the right state agency. In California, where The Pride Law Firm is located, this will be the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). The attorney general outlines more details on this process.

After this, state officials will review your report and possibly investigate it to see if the accused parties can be held liable for breaking the law.

You may contact a sexual harassment attorney at any time during this process, though it’s best to do so as soon as possible. An attorney will help guide you through the process to explain how it works and what your rights are. They will also oversee your interactions with the state agency to ensure your rights are protected throughout the process.

Reporting Sexual Assault

If you’ve been sexually assaulted, the actions you take immediately following an assault are critical for preserving your potential case details.

Sexual assault attorney Jessica Pride outlines what to do after you’ve been assaulted in the video below:

The first step is to find a place where you are physically safe, and reach out for support, whether from a friend, parent, or partner. The next steps include:

  • Protect all physical evidence: Avoid showering, tampering with your clothing, using the restroom, showering or drinking water.
  • Seek medical care: If you’ve been raped or there has been any penetration of your body, go to a hospital and request a S.A.R.T. (Sexual Assault Response Team) exam.
  • Contact law enforcement: File a police report, and if necessary, request a restraining order.
  • Report the incident: Use your employer’s reporting system to create a record of the assault.
  • Document the event details: Write down the date, time, place, behavior, who did it, how it was addressed, and the perpetrator’s response.

If you are afraid for your job or safety, report it immediately to management or human resources, and contact a sexual assault attorney. You can also contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to file a complaint.

The moments directly following such an experience can be confusing and difficult. If you have trouble with any part of the above-explained process, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our experienced team.

A study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that “75% of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some sort of retaliation.” Having a lawyer on your side helps protect you from unlawful retribution or revenge.

Is It Hard to Prove Harassment in the Workplace?

Elements that may make it challenging to prove workplace harassment include:

  • The perpetrator might be trying to cover up their actions (they might lie, manipulate evidence such as photos, videos, recordings, emails, etc.)
  • The presence of institutional or built-in factors may make it difficult (such as HR complicity in a cover-up, or having weak/non-existent reporting mechanisms)
  • The likelihood of competing accounts and testimonies of what happened
  • “Fleeting” evidence, as in instances where the survivor changes their clothes or takes a shower after an assault
  • Toxic cultural pushback wherein an entire organization may take the side of the perpetrator (especially prevalent in cases of hostile work environment, where the bosses call the shots and the rest of the employees must be subservient)

You need not be intimidated by these circumstances. These are common issues when bringing a workplace sexual harassment suit, and each one of them can be overcome by your legal team at The Pride Law Firm.

The harassment you experienced does not have to be so extreme as to create overwhelming evidence. Your attorney will help build a case based on your specific circumstances. If sexual harassment is interrupting your workplace and affecting your life and well-being, you have the right to take legal action.

Sexual assault is not your fault, no matter what you were wearing when it occurred. We will protect your identity, prevent workplace retaliation, and help you move on with your life and career.

Contact a Sexual Harassment Attorney

Whether you’re an employee, contractor, or other-classified worker, you always have a right to a safe work environment and to take action against your abuser.

Long before the #MeToo movement, Jessica Pride and The Pride Law Firm have been hard at work securing justice in the workplace for men and women like yourself. We are not new to this field of justice. There are a host of benefits you can receive by getting legal help. We can help protect your job, collect damages, and recover any wages or benefits you’ve lost.

At The Pride Law Firm, we are more than just professionals; we are a trusted network of resources for survivors and survivors of sexual abuse. Our staff is one of the only civil law firms with trauma-informed training to meet survivors’ needs. We are also the first civil law firm to staff a full-time survivor advocate to act as a client liaison throughout the entire legal process.

If you’re considering reporting sexual assault in the workplace, you can start with a free, private legal consultation by calling (619) 516-8166 or filling out our online form. It’s normal and okay to have questions; we can help give you answers. The Pride Law Firm is here to protect your rights, livelihood, and character.


Workplace Sexual Harassment FAQs

What can I do about sexual harassment in the military?

Serving in the U.S. military is an honorable act for both males and females. Unfortunately, it has become one of the most scrutinized work environments today due to escalating reports of sexual harassment and assault. On the one hand, this means that survivors are coming forward; on the other, it means the abuse is still a common occurrence.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) show that 14,900 service members experienced a form of sexual assault in one year. One in four women and one in three men were assaulted by someone in their chain of command. Even more disturbing is that 58% of survivors in the military experienced reprisals or retaliation for reporting the incidences, and one in four survivors of sexual harassment or assault took steps to leave the military as a result.

Unfortunately, there is little that can be done in U.S. Civil (civilian) court for active duty or veterans at this time. However, if you are a current member of our armed forces and were assaulted by a 3rd-party contractor while on the job, help may be available. You can learn more about your options by speaking with our team. The conversation is confidential, free, and without obligation to pursue a lawsuit.

Why don’t employees report sexual harassment?

It isn’t hard to understand why employees suffer in silence. Sexual harassment in the workplace affects a survivor’s mental, emotional, and physical capacities. Many report “freezing,” or feeling unable to stop or oppose the behavior. Others are ignored or not taken seriously.

Common fears that survivors face about reporting sexual assault in the workplace can include:

  • Jeopardizing their career advancement or employment retaliation, which is quite common when the perpetrator is a manager, supervisor, or in a position of power
  • Facing disbelief about the incident(s) and being accused of instigating it/them
  • Being labeled and ostracized from teams, groups, other coworkers if they find out
  • Compromising their income when they have dependents at home
  • Lack of faith in the system, fearing that nothing will happen if they report it

We know it’s not easy, and have listened to and supported countless people in these exact predicaments. We understand you may have children at home or be the sole provider for your household and may have concerns about compromising your career. We will advise you of all your legal options.

What are the California employer obligations in sexual harassment cases?

According to California and federal laws, employers in all settings have the responsibility to ensure their workplace is free of sexual misconduct and assault at all times. If the employer knows or should have known that sexual harassment or assault is occurring but takes no action against it, the company can be held liable.

In California, employers must provide a safe work environment for all employees or those affiliated with the business by:

  • Requiring two hours of interactive sexual harassment training every two years for companies of 50 employees or more
  • Fully investigating all complaints and bearing the costs of at-fault litigation
  • Ensuring that employees, managers, and supervisors have a clear understanding of the sexual harassment training, policy, and review
  • Having a safe grievance system to allow employees to come forward
  • Warning employees that neither sexual harassment nor assault is tolerated and wrongdoers will be disciplined
  • Prohibiting retaliation against employees who file complaints

Punishing an employee for reporting sexual harassment in the workplace or any other type of misconduct or assault is illegal. The attorneys at The Pride Law Firm exist to protect men and women who have been silenced or fear this type of retaliation for reporting sexual misconduct of any kind.

How long do I have to decide to file a sexual harassment lawsuit?

As of 2020 in California, the filing deadline (also known as a “statute of limitations”) for an employee’s sexual harassment or discrimination claim has been extended to 3 years from the date of the last incident. That is the window of time you have to obtain a “Right to Sue” letter from DFEH, after which you’re allowed an additional year to file a civil lawsuit.

This is not a lot of time when you consider the personal trauma and employment issues that may be affecting you, plus the numerous requirements necessary to arrange for a lawsuit. That is why it’s so important to empower an attorney to work on your behalf. We will meet those deadlines, we will subpoena necessary records, and we will represent you during negotiations or when speaking to any press involved to help protect your identity and reputation.

If you’ve been assaulted in the workplace, it’s imperative that you have appropriate support and legal representation. No one should have to suffer from sexual abuse in their line of work. Many survivors today are choosing to expose their perpetrators, much more so than in the past.

If you’ve been assaulted or harassed and aren’t sure where to turn, please contact The Pride Law Firm today. Your consultation is completely private, free, and without obligation to proceed or file a lawsuit. We offer trusted legal advice and support anonymously, so you can safely learn about how we can hold your perpetrator or those who retaliated against you accountable. Reach out online or by calling (619) 516-8166 — when you are ready to talk about your situation, we are ready to help.

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Reach Out to Us

If you have been a victim of sexual assault, child sexual abuse, or workplace sexual harassment we are here to answer your questions, provide a free and confidential case evaluation, and connect you to resources. 

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The Pride Law Firm
2831 Camino Del Rio S., Suite 104
San Diego, CA 92108

Hours. M-F 8:30am - 5:00pm PST

Phone. ​(619) 516-8166

Fax. (619) 785-3414




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