What Constitutes as a Hostile Work Environment in California

Author: Nicki Malekadeli
Posted on: November 29, 2019

Having disagreements with other people whom you interact with is normal. There will definitely be times when an employee may disagree with a certain point of view or opinion of another fellow employee, or in some cases, even the supervisor. However, there is a difference between a petty gossip-laden workplace and a downright abusive work environment. But what exactly is a hostile work environment in California?

Hostile Work Environment in California Defined

A hostile work environment falls under the category of unlawful harassment as recognized by the employment laws of the state of California. Before an employee can file charges or come to the conclusion that he/she/they is/are a victim of a hostile work environment, the situation and behavior that transpired must exhibit the following factors:

  1. The behavior must be driven by legally protected characteristics such as
    • Race
    • Religion
    • Sex
    • Age (for employees above 40 years old)
    • Mental or Physical Disability
    • National Origin
    • Genetic Information
    • Ancestry
    • Military or Veteran Status
    • Sexual Orientation
    • Gender Identity/Expression
    • Color
    • Medical Condition
    • Marital Status
  2. The action must be pervasive, severe, and frequent. 
  3. The behavior interferes with the victim’s execution of his/her/their duties at work and has created an abusive environment for others as well.
  4. The company must know or should have known about the behavior. (ex. The victim wrote a letter to HR, other employees witnessed the behavior, etc.)

Examples of Behaviors That Create A Hostile Work Environment

  • Derogatory comments – calling another person offensive nicknames (f*ggot, n*gger, etc.)  instead of his/her/their real name. 
  • Inappropriate jokes – making fun of someone with a physical disability or objectifying a co-worker.
  • Threats – threatening to harm or fire an employee because they refused to do sexual favors.
  • Aggressive sexual gestures or advances – tapping a co-worker’s butt “jokingly.”
  • Unwelcome physical contact – touching without consent.

Hostile Work Environment California Laws

The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) Section 12940

This law states that employers cannot discriminate against any person due to the aforementioned legally protected characteristics. It also says that if no proper action is taken against perpetrators, despite the awareness of the employer, it is assumed to be unlawful. An employer may also be held responsible for harassment from non-employees, if nothing is done to appease the person/people affected.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

The provisions under this law include unlawful employer practices such as the prohibition of discriminating against people due to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It is to ensure equal employment opportunities for all people.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)

This law exists so that employees 40 years old and older in the United States will not be discriminated against and excluded because of his/her/their age in any program or activity in employment such as promotions, layoffs, and pay raises. This applies to employers with 20 or more employees.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)

This is a civil rights law that helps protect people with disabilities so that they may gain equal opportunities and benefits, be it in employment, school, etc. It prohibits discrimination towards people with disabilities and provides guidelines in terms of giving reasonable accommodations for them. This law applies to employers with 15 or more employees. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) implements this law.

Who is Liable?

Anyone can be a victim of a hostile work environment or harassment; just as much as anyone can be a perpetrator. If the harasser is a co-worker, the employer will not automatically be at fault. To hold up a case against a co-worker, one must review the definition of a “hostile work environment”. Revisit the factors needed to prove the case. Namely the following:

  • The motivation was caused by a legally protected characteristic
  • The action or behavior was severe, pervasive, and frequent
  • It hinders the employee from performing efficiently at his/her/their job
  • The company knows or should have known about the behavior

However, if the cause of the hostile work environment is a supervisor, the employer will always be the one held liable. This may be a sign of negligence on the employer’s part.

Employers have the power to help employees and to let them know about their basic rights. By giving them the chance to share their grievances about the work environment, a company can work on ways to help its workers grow and become more productive individuals. Harassment holds back employees from performing to their fullest potential. Trauma will force them to take more leaves or quit their job altogether. Once harassment happens, an employer must take the complaint seriously. Injustices happening within a company may make the company less credible.

Harassment of all forms is never acceptable. If you feel that you are suffering from a hostile work environment, the best thing to do is to take action and stand up for yourself. Silence gives power to the oppressor. One must speak up for his/her/their rights so as to take away the power from the perpetrator. Do not be afraid to seek help from an experienced employment law firm in California.

Get in touch with Mesriani Law Group today!