Sexual Harassment Law in California: Quid Pro Quo & Hostile Work

Sexual harassment is one of the most common forms of harassment in today’s workplace. Claims of sexual harassment number in the tens of thousands each year. Millions of dollars are paid annually to compensate victims for their suffering.

According to one survey, nearly 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced workplace sexual harassment. Sexual harassment in the workplace is an unfortunate event that affects both heterosexual and homosexual men and women. Fortunately, employees and workers in Los Angeles have employment laws to stop this behavior from happening. This article provides a general overview sexual harassment law in California.

Types of Sexual Harassment

Both state and federal law divide sexual harassment into two categories:

  • “Quid pro quo” sexual harassment, or
  • “Hostile work environment” sexual harassment.

The U.S. Supreme Court has noted that these categories are helpful in distinguishing between cases where threats are carried out and those where they are not or are absent altogether. A worker, however, can be the victim of both quid pro quo and hostile work environment harassment.

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

“Quid pro quo" sexual harassment involves the behavior that most people consider sexual harassment—sexual propositions, graphic discussion of sex acts, and commentary on the worker’s body. Quid pro quo sexual harassment requires a supervisor to demand or ask for sexual favors for some job benefit. In other cases, supervisors will threaten negative consequences at work if their sexual demands are not met.

Most requests for sexual favors are subtle and disguised. Examples of potential quid pro quo harassment are:

  • Giving or withholding employee benefits upon condition of performing or allowing sexual acts.
  • Suggestions that being romantic or "friendly" would be in an employee's best interest.
  • Promising employee greater job opportunities if sexual demands are met.

Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment

If a supervisor acts in a way that exposes a worker to unwanted sexual behavior, they may have committed “hostile work environment” sexual harassment. Hostile work environment sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual conduct. Although similar to quid pro quo sexual harassment, it hostile work environment sexual harassment is slightly distinct. It must unreasonably interfere with an employee’s work or create a hostile work environment.

Hostile work environment sexual harassment that must sufficiently offend, humiliate or distress the worker in the workplace. If so, the offending supervisor has probably engaged in sexual harassment. Common examples of a hostile work environment behavior include:

  • Sexual innuendos or comments.
  • Intrusive sexual questions.
  • Making sexually suggestive gestures or sounds.
  • Commenting on someone’s sexuality or appearance.
  • Repeated unwanted body contact.
  • Staring or ogling.
  • Offensive sexual “jokes.”
  • Displaying of pornography or other sexually explicit content.
  • Attempted or completed sexual assault.
  • Deliberate exposure of private parts.

What is needed to show there is a hostile work environment?

The critical question in hostile work environment cases is the severity and pervasiveness of the unwelcome sexual conduct. To determine whether the behavior is sufficiently severe or pervasive, the court will look at:

  • The severity of the actions.
  • The frequency of the actions.
  • The timing or context of the conduct to determine whether the behavior is sufficiently severe or pervasive.

How Can Employees Stop Sexual Harassment?

Whether sexual conduct is unwelcome can be a complex legal and factual issue. If you think you are being sexually harassed, you should stop the offending behavior by firmly and clearly informing the offender that their behavior is unwelcome. You should express that you want their behavior to stop.

You should also refer to your employee handbook for additional guidance and procedures. It may provide valuable instructions for notifying your employer and managerial staff.

Once your employer is notified, they have a legal duty to investigate and implement the appropriate preventative and corrective action.

What are Employees’ Remedies for Sexual Harassment?

Aside from stopping the harassment, employees can pursue remedies that result in monetary compensation. In many cases, both the perpetrator and your employer could be financially liable for any harm you have suffered. Under both state and federal law, an employer can be financially liable for the harassing acts of supervisors.

Additionally, a worker often does not need to show any injury to recover for sexual harassment. In these cases, employees could be entitled to compensatory damages or punitive damages. Compensatory damages compensate the victim for the actual cost that the sexual harassment has taken in their lives. Punitive damages, on the other hand, serve to punish the offending conduct.

In many cases, employers can be held strictly liable for the actions of a supervisor if they require quid pro quo sexual favors for job benefits. This means that the employer does not have to know or have an intent to allow quid pro quo sexual harassment. The mere occurrence of quid pro quo sexual harassment is enough.

In successful cases, employees can be entitled to attorney fees and reasonable court costs in pursuing their remedies against employers.

Sexual harassment is a difficult issue to address on your own.

Let a Los Angeles or Orange County attorney help you stop the harassment and protect you at work.

Many victims of sexual harassment are afraid to confront the perpetrator. Embarrassment, fear of job loss, and the threat of retaliation often silence sexual harassment victims. No employee should be forced to work in an environment where they are asked submit to sexual demands or encounter lewd and obscene behavior.

Call (949) 954-8181 to schedule a confidential consultation to understand your rights, options, and risks.


ABC News & Washington Post, One in Four U.S. Women Reports Workplace Harassment (Nov. 16, 2011), available at
Fisher v. San Pedro Peninsula Hospital (1989) 214 Cal.App.3d 590.
It is worth mentioning that the U.S. Supreme Court also questioned the value of this distinction beyond this use.(See Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth (1998) 524 U.S. 742.) The critical factor for the court is whether the worker can show a “tangible employment action.”
Mogilefsky v. Superior Court (1993) 20 Cal.App.4th 1409.
See Fair Employment and Housing Act, codified as Government Code sections 12900–12996.
See Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, codified at Subchapter VI of Chapter 21 of title 42 of the United States Code.
Gov’t Code, § 12940, subd. (j)(1).