If you live and work in California, and a hostile work environment is causing anxiety, your employer may be in violation of state and federal harassment laws. However, while you think you may have a legal claim in a harassment case, it is sometimes hard to know what legally constitutes a hostile work environment in California. An employee can file a lawsuit to stop harassment, and can also potentially receive unemployment benefits as a result of having to leave a job because of a hostile work environment.
What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment in California?
Anger, bigotry or personal gratification can influence unlawful harassment, but many workplace behaviors that seem unlawful to a person in a hostile environment aren't illegal. Hostility in the workplace does not constitute a legal action unless it crosses the line into discrimination, violates company policy or causes unsafe working conditions. There is a difference between someone being mean or annoying and a violation of state and federal harassment laws. The only way to know the difference is by understanding the specifics of California’s legal protections against workplace harassment. In the eyes of the law, illegal workplace harassment isn't usually just an isolated incident, but a series of events in which the workplace becomes a hostile environment with abusive behavior aimed at a legally protected class of employee.
At work, harassment can come from anyone – a supervisor to a coworker. It can even originate from someone who is not a direct employee of a company, like a customer, client or vendor. A sufferer of workplace harassment does not have to be the intended victim, either. It can be anyone in the workplace who is witness to abusive or bullying conduct and is offended or disturbed by it. The California Department of Labor defines a hostile work environment as undesirable or unwelcome behavior toward a protected class of employee. In addition, this conduct must be severe and extensive enough that a reasonable person would deem the offender's behavior as offensive.
The frequency and severity of the abusive behavior, physical or humiliating threats toward the victim and the use of offensive words or phrases are some of the things that dictate the seriousness and prevalence of the workplace harassment committed. Interference with the victim's job performance, its effect on an employee's overall well-being and the harasser's position in an organization are also factors in determining what constitutes a hostile work environment in California.
Protected Classes in the California Workplace
In all 50 states, it is illegal to discriminate in the workplace based on race, color, nationality, religion, religion, sex, mental or physical disability, age 40 years and up, citizenship and genetic information. California's specific protected classes include those at the federal level and also sexual orientation, gender, marital status, medical conditions, military status, ancestry, genetics, political activities or affiliations, and a domestic violence, assault or stalking victim's status. Cities across California also have their own laws with even more specific characteristics, like height and weight, to extend greater protection to their employees in both the public and private sectors.
The California Fair Employment and Housing Act's Harassment Definition explains workplace hostility as acts committed against both federal and state classes of employees. These acts include:
- Verbal harassment, such as derogatory comments and slurs, romantic or sexual advances, comments or jokes, and intrusiveness into an employee's personal life.
- Physical harassment in the form of unwanted touching and physical interference of any kind that hinders an employee's work.
- Visual harassment such as offensive drawings, lewd gestures or leering.
- Unwelcome sexual advances in return for employment benefits like a promotion or raise.
California employers with 15 or more employees are subject to federal antidiscrimination laws, while the state's protected class laws apply to companies with a minimum of five employees. Exceptions to the rule in California are age discrimination, which affects employers with over twenty employees; citizenship status discrimination, which applies to employers with four or more employees; and equal pay for men and women, which applies to all employers.
What to Do in a Hostile Work Environment
If you believe you are a victim of workplace hostility, don't wait to speak up. File a complaint with the human resources department of your company in writing. If your company does not have a human resources department, alert company superiors to the problem. Filing a complaint with the necessary parties allows for an internal investigation of the harassment claim and an effort can be made to resolve the issue internally.
Hostility in a work environment can sometimes come in the form of a lewd drawing or a profane email. If there is a paper or digital trail, save those items as evidence to prove your case. Save additional items related to the complaint including internal memos and the company's policies on harassment as they pertain to your case. Keep notes on what kind of hostility you're suffering, who's causing it, the time, date and other details of the incidents and anything else that you think may be useful in formal legal proceedings.
It may seem like a good idea to covertly tape or record conversations with your harasser to use in court, but California law requires informed consent when doing so. Taping or recording a conversation without a person's knowledge, even if they are abusive or bullying, is illegal. Not only will you not be able to use the recording in a court of law, but you may damage your case and suffer criminal prosecution. Do not willingly engage with a person who is harassing you by playing along or encouraging them. Be direct by telling your harasser that you do not approve of what's happening, then consult your company’s policies on harassment and discrimination.
You can file a lawsuit against a hostile work environment in California if the harassment showed discrimination of a protected class or the abused breached a contract between you and your employer. If neither of those instances is at play in a hostile workplace claim, you cannot sue your employer. To sue, you or your lawyer must first file a charge with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to obtain a right-to-sue letter regarding a hostile work environment. This is a necessary step before filing a harassment lawsuit. Both agencies cooperate with each other in processing claims. The agency that receives the charges will get in touch with your employer and decide how to proceed via an investigation. After the investigation of workplace harassment is complete, and the agency approves your charge, you will receive a right-to sue-letter. Only then can the lawsuit go forward.
Read More: How to Prove a Hostile Work Environment for Unemployment
Preventing Workplace Harassment
Under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, an employer should take all reasonable steps necessary to prevent discrimination and harassment from occurring. Employers are potentially responsible if an employee gets fired, is not hired or promoted, or loses wages as the result of workplace hostility. According to California law, a company can potentially be liable if a supervisor, who is acting on behalf of the employer during or outside work hours, asks for sexual favors in exchange for workplace benefits. An employer can also be at fault if a harasser is in a nonsupervisory role and it was aware of the harassment but took no action to stop it. If an employer can provide proof of its efforts to stop workplace hostility after becoming aware of it, or the employee declined help, the employer may not be liable for the harassment taking place.
Statute of Limitations in a Hostile Work Environment in California
There are several factors involved in hostile work environment lawsuits, and deadlines often vary on a case-by-case basis. A victim who wants to file a lawsuit must first get the approval to do so from a state or federal agency, both of which enforce strict antidiscrimination laws. The statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit doesn't begin until an investigation of the incident occurs. If an agency approves the case with a right-to-sue letter, only then will you know approximately how long you have to take your employer or coworker to court.
Which agency you filed your initial claim with can affect the filing deadlines. For example, if you want to file with the EEOC, you have up to 180 days after the last discriminatory act to do so. However, if the state's Department of Fair Employment and Housing approves your claim, you'll have one year from the time the right-to-sue letter is used to file a lawsuit in court. If you fail to do so within these time limits, the court can dismiss your case altogether. It is best to seek legal guidance if you have questions regarding the statute of limitations in a workplace harassment case.
Can You Get Unemployment for a Hostile Work Environment?
If you are the victim of a hostile work environment and you've left your job as a result of the harassment, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits under specific criteria. To receive these benefits, your job must have been terminated through no fault of your own. The eligibility requirements for unemployment benefits vary from state to state and each has its own definition of what constitutes good cause to leave a job. If you quit your employment voluntarily, you will not be eligible to collect unemployment in the state of California. However, if you had to leave your job due to a hostile work environment, you may be able to collect unemployment benefits.
California's Employment Development Department makes the determination for good cause for leaving a job on a case-by-case basis. The reasons behind quitting must have significance and credibility for benefits to be granted to the person who has left their job. If hostile working conditions pose a risk to an employee's health and safety, or if an employee's working conditions become unbearable as a result of abuse, harassment or bullying, and the employee would have otherwise stayed at the job, good cause may apply and an employee may be eligible for unemployment benefits.
If you voluntarily leave your job and claim good cause, the EDD will investigate your claim with a letter or phone to discuss your reasons for quitting. The agency will then contact your employer for a statement regarding your employment to determine if your reasons for leaving qualify as good cause. The agency will then decide on your unemployment benefit eligibility.
Contacts for Additional Information on Workplace Harassment
For more information on what constitutes a hostile work environment in California and nationwide, call the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at 800-669-4000 or visit the agency's website at www.eeoc.gov. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will help you locate a field office in California.
California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing enforces antidiscrimination laws statewide. For more information, contact the Sacramento district office at 916-478-7200 or 800-884-1684, or visit the agency's website at dfeh.ca.gov.
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.