What is Workplace Harassment? What You Need to Know

Workplace harassment can take many forms, but ultimately, it creates a hostile environment that makes employees feel distressed, marginalized, and unable to thrive professionally. 

No one should have to endure an abusive workplace. Every employee has a right to feel safe, valued, and able to grow in their career.

Understanding what workplace harassment means, the different types, and your responsibilities is crucial.

What is Workplace Harassment? 

Workplace harassment refers to unwelcome behavior or misconduct that targets protected characteristics and creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Harassment often involves repetitive actions that are verbally or physically abusive, threaten employment status or promotion, or generate an environment that interferes with an employee’s ability to perform. 

Both individual acts and overall patterns of harassing workplace behavior can create liability under state and federal laws.

What Forms of Harassment Show Up in the Workplace?

Sexual Harassment

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for favors, inappropriate touching, and other misconduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment. Victims can experience quid pro quo harassment where job benefits are conditioned on sexual cooperation. Hostile work environment harassment involves severe or pervasive conduct poisoning the workplace.

Racial and Religious Harassment

Derogatory comments, slurs, or jokes targeting someone’s race, ethnicity, or religion violate state and federal laws. This includes mocking accents, cultural dress, or religious customs. Discrimination also qualifies as harassment.

Harassment Based on National Origin, Disability, or Age

Workers over 40 are protected against age-based harassment under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Insulting remarks about disabilities or failing to provide reasonable accommodations also create a hostile environment.

Bullying and Verbal Abuse

While not always unlawful, persistent bullying, ridicule, insults, and verbal abuse create a hostile environment for victims. No one deserves to be mistreated at work, regardless of legal definitions.

The Harmful Effects of Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment can inflict serious psychological, professional, and economic damage both on directly affected individuals and the overall organization. 

Impacts may include:

  • Mental Health/Wellbeing – Victims often suffer from heightened anxiety, stress, depression, humiliation, and emotional trauma, leading to lost sleep, appetite changes, feelings of helplessness, and more.
  • Productivity & Performance – Harassment takes attention/energy away from an employee’s actual job duties, reducing motivation and quality of work. Victims may use sick leave to avoid harassers.
  • Morale & Collegiality – Harassment poisons company cultures, making victims feel unwelcome. Coworker bonds suffer when some personnel must tiptoe around others’ inappropriate behaviors.
  • Retention & Recruitment – Targeted employees often quit to escape further harassment. Word spreading makes quality talent reluctant to join organizations with toxic environments.
  • Legal Liabilities – Victim lawsuits, regulatory fines, settlement payouts to victims, and damage to organizational reputations can be financially devastating.

In many cases, negative impacts expand beyond individual victims. Workplace harassment can seriously threaten operational stability, cost dollars, spill into public relations nightmares, and severely interrupt performance across entire companies.

Reporting Workplace Harassment in California

California law prohibits and punishes sexual harassment under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Victims have multiple options for reporting:

Internal Complaint Route

Employees may first file an internal complaint with their employer’s human resources department. Companies with 5+ employees must provide complaint procedures under the law. They must launch an investigation and take corrective action if harassment occurs.

Administrative Complaints

Employees have the option to pursue administrative remedies with California’s Civil Rights Department (CRD). This must be done within 3 years of the harassment. The CRD will conduct an impartial investigation into the alleged misconduct before making a finding about the validity of the complaint.

Private Lawsuit Option

If an employee disagrees with the CRD finding or believes the remedies were insufficient, they can request a “right to sue” notice and privately pursue legal action against their harasser(s) and employer in civil court. Damages, back pay, and reinstatement can be pursued.

Reporting through trusted internal channels and/or independent state agencies is critical for addressing misconduct and deterring further offenses. Contacting an employment lawyer further helps victims understand all options under California law.

Contact a California Workplace Harassment Lawyer Today

Harassment poisons workplace cultures and devastates victims. But hope and help exist. Understanding your rights, speaking up, and seeking experienced legal counsel from qualified workplace discrimination and harassment lawyers, like those at Malk Law Firm, can help overcome abusive environments.

If you face harassment at work, contact their team today for a case review. Their attorneys can guide you forward.