Despite progress made in recent decades, sexual harassment continues to be a major issue in the American workforce. Harassment numbers in California are no exception. A recent University of California San Diego School of Medicine study found California “incidences of sexual harassment are 5 percent higher for women and 10 percent higher for men than the national average”.1
Knowledge is power where offensive conduct is concerned, and knowing how to effectively deal with sexual harassment is an important component to a healthy, safe, and productive workplace. While many companies have a sexual harassment policy, many employees don’t even know how to file a complaint or where to go for assistance.
What is sexual harassment in California?
Sexual harassment occurs when someone makes unwanted and uninvited comments, non-verbal communication, or advances of a sexual or sex-oriented nature toward another person. The victim may experience verbal abuse, intimidation, stalking, threats, repeated propositions, persistent text messages and phone calls, or other forms of emotionally distressing interactions. Typically this unwelcome conduct is also defined as offensive, hostile, or abusive behavior that a typically “reasonable person” would find objectionable.
Sexual harassment in the workplace can come from any coworker, though supervisory employees are often perpetrators of harassment due to their position of influence and power within the organization.
Harassment from supervisors frequently falls under the umbrella of quid pro quo harassment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment results when a supervisor makes sexual requests or demands on a subordinate and “as a result of the subordinate’s refusal to submit to a higher-up’s sexual demands.” 2
Not every form of attention constitutes sexual harassment, and certain situations fall into murky gray areas that make defining harassment difficult. For example, if a coworker you find unappealing makes a compliment about your clothing, it may be just that: a compliment. If the communication is extended as a means to build a relationship, is not sexually explicit or heavily inferring sexual meaning, and is not intimidating, then it is most likely not harassment.
Although the law varies from state to state, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature” and includes offensive remarks about a person, based on their sex alone.
The state of California goes on to define sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, or other visual, verbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature and actions that create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment based on an employee’s sex”.
The terms “intimidating,” “hostile,” and “offensive” are slippery. What is offensive to one person may not be to the next. However, one key to defining harassment is persistent behavior that either creates a difficult work environment or puts a person’s employment at risk or under strain in the event they resist the harassing behaviors. When coworker behavior crosses the line by creating hostile work environments, it typically is considered a form of harassment.
California also adds that sexual harassment need not be motivated by sexual desire specifically, but “may be based upon an employee’s actual or perceived sex or gender identity, actual or perceived sexual orientation, and/or pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” This expands the definition of sexual harassment in California to more broadly include gender-based harassment of any kind.
>> Read more: How do you know if someone is sexually harassing you?
What to do if you are a victim of sexual harassment in California
If you believe you are a victim of sexual harassment in California, there are certain steps you can take to ensure your safety and protect your legal rights.
First, it is important to take action immediately and not allow harassing situations to continue longer than they already have. You need to make it clear to the offender that their behavior is not ok and that they cannot get away with it. Also, in extreme situations, harassment could escalate to an unsafe scenario.
If you feel you are safe and in no danger from the person you feel harassed by, you can try to resolve the issue directly with them. Harassment is often borne out of ignorance and poor judgment, and direct confrontation regarding the behavior is often enough to end the pattern of behavior.
If direct confrontation is not possible or if the harassment continues, you should report the issue to your supervisor or human resources department. Most companies have a harassment policy that outlines a specific complaint process for reporting human resources-related issues. This may be a specific email inbox, your supervisor, or a designated HR person to whom you may submit a formal complaint.
If the person harassing you is your direct supervisor, you will need to submit the report to another supervisor or the next level up of leadership.
Prior to submitting your sexual harassment complaint, take some time to document, in chronological order with dates and times where possible, the sequence of events that occurred. Always submit harassment-related complaints in writing, even when a verbal complaint is made. Include an account of any verbal, direct confrontation you may have had with the individual and be sure to include copies of any written communication that occurred. Keep personal copies of anything you submit throughout the process.
After submitting your complaint, If you feel the situation is being ignored or swept under the rug, don’t make assumptions and ask directly for an update of the steps being taken to remediate the issue. In cases where it is obvious the harassment is not being dealt with, you may also want to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This ensures a higher level of investigation is set into motion and, while it may take some time, this action provides a level of accountability that extends outside of company leadership.
Lastly, you may want to contact an experienced attorney who is well versed in sexual harassment law to discuss your legal options. This avenue generally incurs legal fees, so consider consulting with a California community or non-profit organization that specializes in matters of harassment and workplace reform for guidance and specific community resources as you seek legal advice.
How to file a report with the police in California
When you experience workplace harassment, you have the right to file an official police report. This is particularly important in cases where you feel unsafe, believe you are being stalked by the harasser, the harasser has threatened harm or you feel that the harasser may be capable of committing harm against you.
If in doubt, speak with law enforcement. If the situation turns out to be less threatening than originally thought, there is little harm in playing it safe. If not, you could prevent a serious situation from escalating to a tragic outcome.
If you believe your situation requires it, there are a few important steps to take to file a police report in California.
To file a police report, you will need to contact your local law enforcement agency and provide them with your personal information and the details of the harassment. This can often be done online or via phone, but it is generally best to do this in person to expedite the process and to be able to communicate the details of the situation face-to-face.
Even if you do make a face-to-face report, it is still wise to include details of your incident in writing. As mentioned before, having a time-stamped, written account of the incident along with any support documentation such as email, text messages, security camera footage, and screenshots of phone logs is beneficial. The more detail the better, so if in doubt, include it in your report.
You should also be prepared to provide any witnesses’ contact information. Be sure to let those witnesses know that they may be contacted by police for a statement.
If nerves have gotten the best of you, it is perfectly acceptable to take along a friend for support as you submit your report. If a witness is willing to accompany you, that would be doubly beneficial as they will be able to support you and help fill in details about the incident.
What to expect after you file a sexual harassment report with the police
Once you have filed a police report, the investigation will be initiated and law enforcement will determine if there is enough evidence to pursue charges against the harasser.
At this point, the investigation is largely out of your hands. Patience will be needed at this stage as investigations often move more slowly than you would like. Police resources are limited and there is no shortage of pressure on those resources, so each case is assigned a priority level. If your case lands in a long queue of investigations, it may take some time before you see progress.
Having your initial report organized with as much evidence, documentation and witness information as possible will help your case priority. Prompt responses to any additional police requests for information will also help move the investigation along more quickly.
At this stage, law enforcement will often contact the alleged harasser and notify them of the investigation, provide them with a warning, and establish expectations as they move the investigation forward.
It is important to note that, should any offensive behavior continue after your initial report, it is very important to continue to report incidents to law enforcement. Details of continued harassment will help them shape their investigation and prioritization as well as make them aware of a situation that has escalated dangerously.
In cases of continued harassment, you may choose to file a restraining order. Law enforcement can provide guidance and should also be made aware if this measure is taken, as it will be taken into account in the investigation.
Why is reporting sexual harassment important
The EEOC reports that between 2018 and 2021, a total of 27,291 charges alleging sexual harassment were received. And yet, many instances of sexual harassment go unreported. One study reported 90% of individuals who say they have experienced harassment never take formal action. 3
There are a number of reasons why victims may choose not to report sexual harassment, including fear of employer retaliation or harasser retaliation, feelings of shame or embarrassment, or believing that no one will believe them.
However, it is important to report sexual harassment for many reasons. First, reporting can help to stop the behavior from continuing. If the harasser is confronted and made aware of the consequences of their actions, they may be less likely to repeat the behavior.
Additionally, reporting can help to protect other potential victims, especially those who are too afraid to speak out.
Finally, reporting can help create accountability in the workplace where someone may try to use leverage or influence to get away with bad behavior. Raising awareness of harassment-related issues may be the catalyst to bring about policy changes and sexual harassment prevention training, thus helping address the root of the issue.
Harassment should have no foothold in our places of work. Unless individuals and company leadership are willing to watch for and report instances of harassment as they occur, it will continue to have a harmful and costly impact on individuals and companies in the US. Each step toward eliminating workplace harassment creates a more safe working environment for future employees and generations.
 Arianna. (2019, October 28). Utilizing the #MeToo movement to strengthen advocacy for comprehensive and scalable adolescent sexual and reproductive health education in the U.S. & Globally. Center on Gender Equity and Health (GEH) – UC San Diego. Retrieved September 4, 2022, from https://geh.ucsd.edu/utilizing-metoo/
 Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Quid pro quo. Legal Information Institute. Retrieved September 4, 2022, from https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/quid_pro_quo
 Cortina, Lilia & Berdahl, Jennifer. (2008). Sexual Harassment in Organizations: A Decade of Research in Review. Handbook of organizational behavior. 10.4135/9781849200448.n26.