Workplace Harassment in California: What kind of behavior is illegal?

In many situations, California employers are prohibited by law from harassing employees in the workplace. However, the harassment must involve a prohibited behavior. An employer, for example, cannot verbally harass you for being a member of a protected class.

If you have been the victim of harassment, you may have many questions about how the law can protect you. This post answers several of those below:

If you have questions that are unanswered here, contact an employment attorney in your area for additional assistance.

“What classes are protected from verbal harassment in the workplace?”

Verbal harassment is one of the most common forms of workplace harassment. Employers often think that mere words are not enough to subject them to legal liability. This common misconception is completely wrong.

California law prohibits verbal harassment if the subject of the harassment falls within a specific protected class. A “class” for these purposes is simply a category of people that cannot be targeted for harassment. Those classes include the employee’s:

  • Race,
  • Religion,
  • Color,
  • National origin,
  • Ancestry,
  • Physical or mental disability,
  • Medical condition,
  • Marital status,
  • Gender,
  • Sexual orientation, or
  • The employee’s age if they are over 40.

In many situations, it may be difficult to tell whether your employer has verbally harassed you. So it’s important to discuss the specific of your case with a California attorney that represents your interests.

“What other behaviors are prohibited in the workplace?”

Along with protections against verbal harassment, employees are protected from several other forms of workplace harassment. California law specifically prohibits employers from the following:

  • Physical harassment, including: (1) assault, or (2) blocking or interfering with your movement if directed at your for being a member of a protected class listed above.
  • Visual harassment, like displaying derogatory images or drawings.
  • Sexual harassment, which includes unwanted sexual advances that condition the benefit of employment on an exchange of sexual favors.

In every California workplace, employers must take all reasonable steps to prevent harassment. Employers are also responsible for protecting you from discrimination and harassment from your co-workers and your supervisors. California’s extensive protections against workplace harassment can significantly help workers that respond properly.

“What should I do if I’m being harassed at work?”

If you’re being harassed at work, you may feel distressed and alone. However, there are several steps that you can take to help fix your situation. For many employees, the most important step is to get in touch with a local California attorney. There are also several preliminary steps you can take.

  • Read your employee handbook for your employer’s procedure on dealing with workplace harassment and violence. Employee handbooks should include the procedure for initiating and investigating such complaints. Follow these complaint procedures exactly as they are in your employee handbook
  • If your employer does not have an employee handbook, submit a written letter clearly documenting the harassment and/or violence you are suffering. It is a good idea to have an attorney draft this letter for you, to make sure you are properly exercising your rights. You should keep a copy of your written letter and have proof that the letter has been received by an appropriate person. You should submit your written letter to a supervisor or other personnel manager. If the person who is harassing you is your supervisor, you should report the harassment to either a higher level supervisor or a member of management.
  • In addition to notifying your company about harassment, you may also send your complaints to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”). The DFEH has the authority to conduct investigations of what happened to you.[/list]

There may be a deadline to submit your complaint. The deadline for notification depends on the type of harm you have suffered and the party you are submitting your notification to. It is up to you or your attorney to determine the deadlines for your complaints.

Remember, you do not need to fear any retaliation for filing a good faith complaint of workplace harassment. California law protects you from retaliation and participating in an investigation against your harasser.

“What kind of money damages can employees receive?”

Money damages in California employment cases can be broken down into two categories: compensatory damages and punitive damages.

Compensatory Damages

Compensatory damages are meant to compensate workers for the harm they have suffered as a result of the unlawful conduct of another. The amount of compensatory damages will vary depending on a variety of factors. For example, harassment is often very stressful. Doctor’s visits and prescription drugs are often needed to deal with the pain of harassment. These incidents of stress can result in increased damage awards. In other cases, physical pain and suffering can be demonstrated by clear evidence, which will also result in increased compensatory damages. If you experience physical problems from harassment, it’s important to see your doctor. This helps your health and your legal case.

Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are monetary damages that are meant to punish an employer for their misconduct. To discourage future employment law and workplace violations, punitive damages are sometimes much greater than compensatory damages.

“What factors do California courts consider in determining the amount of money damages?”

The exact amount you can recover will depend on many factors specific to your case. Because the facts of your case are different from the cases of others, predicting how much you will receive is very difficult.

The amount of money damages in the workplace will depend on the violations committed by your employer. Several other factors will also be considered. Generally damage awards will account for:

  • The intent of the person harassing you,
  • Whether the violator’s behavior is intentional or reckless,
  • Whether the employer had knowledge of the violator’s actions and whether the employer ratified or approved the unlawful acts,
  • How egregious the harassment was, and
  • How long and consistently the unlawful behavior and violations occurred.

Remaining Concerns

It’s often difficult to report a fellow co-worker for harassment. Many people are rightfully concerned about retaliation by their supervisors or co-workers. They might also feel embarrassed about events that happened to them. However, you do not need to face your harassment at work alone. Optimum Employment Lawyers are here to explain your rights and options. All consultations are free of charge and confidential. Call us today: (949) 954-8181.


Gov't Code, § 12940, see generally the Fair Employment and Housing Act, contained in division 3, Part 2.8, of the Government Code (§ 19200 et seq.).

2 Cal. Code Reg. § 7287.6, subd. (b)(1); see Fisher v. San Pedro Peninsula Hosp. (1989) 214 Cal.App.3d 590, 607–608.

Gov’t Code, § 12940, subd. (j)(1).