Hostile Work Environment: How an Employment Attorney Can Help California Workers

No matter your job, some amount of workplace conflict is a normal, if unpleasant, part of professional life. Sometimes, though, situations arise that are more distressing and offensive than a regular interpersonal dispute.

Derogatory slurs, unwanted and explicit jokes, and physical intimidation are all behaviors that cross the line for what’s normal and acceptable in the workplace.

Employees who experience this kind of mistreatment — whether from coworkers or supervisors — might understandably wonder if they have grounds to sue as the victim of a hostile work environment.

A number of federal laws protect employees from hostile work environments, including the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

But California, which is known for having some of the strongest worker protection legislation in the country, also has its own set of regulations that specifically protect employees from workplace harassment.

On this page, we’ll break down what California law has to say about hostile work environments, explain what makes a hostile work environment different from other kinds of workplace conflict, and outline the steps that employees in these situations can take to get help and legal restitution.

If you have questions or would like to speak with a hostile work environment lawyer in California, please contact us online today.

How Does California Law Define A Hostile Work Environment? 

In California, “hostile work environment” is a legal term describing a particular type of illegal workplace harassment.

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) details the state’s laws prohibiting harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

According to FEHA, a hostile work environment occurs when one or more employees:

  1. Are subject to “severe” or “pervasive” offensive behavior, and
  2. this mistreatment specifically targets a trait or characteristic protected under California law (e.g. gender, race, age, etc.).

Put simply, a hostile work environment is created when offensive behavior rises to the level of illegal harassment, e.g. as abusive conduct involving an employee’s status as a member of a protected class. 

This abusive conduct can take a variety of forms: 

  • Verbal: derogatory remarks, jokes, insulting epithets, humiliation
  • Visual: violent, suggestive, or explicit images, posters, or drawings
  • Physical: unwanted touching, physical intimidation, threats of violence, unwelcome sexual advances

Harassment can also involve deliberate sabotaging of an individual’s work or performance for reasons based on a protected characteristic.

For example, if an associate at an advertising firm in Sacramento deliberately withholds crucial information from colleagues who are of Latin descent, excluding them from key meetings and refusing to work cooperatively on projects.

Sexual harassment — unwanted interactions or inappropriate behavior directed at someone based on sex, gender, or sexual orientation — is one of the most common and widely recognized causes of hostile work environments in California. However, not all inappropriate or illegal harassment is sex- or gender-based.

In California, employees have a legal right to be free from harassing behavior based on the following characteristics and traits: 

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Ancestry
  • Physical disability or mental disability
  • Medical condition or genetic information
  • Marital status
  • Being pregnant, giving birth, or breastfeeding
  • Age (if 40 or older)
  • Gender identity or gender expression
  • Sexual orientation
  • Military/veteran status

Not all situations of workplace conflict are legally considered grounds for a hostile work environment lawsuit. Consider the situation of an individual hired to replace a former employee who was popular in the office but fired for poor performance.

If, for instance, the new hire faces some ostracization or mistreatment by the friends of the terminated employee, that could be grounds for a complaint to management and a conversation with HR.

While this kind of conflict or mistreatment could be considered inappropriate workplace bullying, it’s not necessarily illegal workplace harassment. While the latter is a legal term, with grounds for recourse under California law, the former is generally not. 

There can be some exceptions to this rule. For instance, a threat that puts an employee’s safety or well-being at risk could be severe enough to constitute hostile work environment harassment without its being linked to a specifically discriminatory motive. 

Generally, though, California law requires evidence that the inappropriate discriminatory harassment was “pervasive” or “severe.”

This means that it was happening frequently enough, and/or to such a serious and disturbing degree, that it interfered with an employee’s ability to do their job normally.

Incidents that are isolated, or based in trivial, interpersonal disagreements are less likely to meet the legal standards for a claim that an employee’s rights have been violated. 

How Does California Law Protect Employees From Hostile Work Environments?

For one, California’s anti-harassment law doesn’t just protect employees from hostile behavior perpetrated by a boss or manager.

Any employee within a company, whether they’re a supervisor of the victim of the harassment, can contribute unlawfully to a hostile work environment.

The cause of a hostile work environment doesn’t even have to be an employee: even third-party associates, like independent contractors, consultants, or clients can commit harassment. 

Under FEHA, it’s an employer’s legal responsibility to maintain a working environment that is free of unwelcome harassment or discrimination for employees. The law requires companies to take reasonable preventative and responsive actions to prevent and address harassment.

For instance, California state law requires employers make a particular effort to combat sexual harassment at work by providing employees with sex-based harassment prevention training every two years.

New laws passed in 2021 added additional requirements, mandating that all supervising employees undergo more detailed, interactive training to prepare them adequately to respond to incidents in the workplace. 

When an incident of harassment does arise, it’s also the employer’s responsibility to respond as quickly as possible.

Employers are expected to investigate complaints of any misconduct, ideally while doing as much as possible to respect the confidentiality of the victim, and to take appropriate remedial measures to address the incident.

This could involve rearranging shift schedules or team assignments so that certain individuals don’t have to be in contact with each other. In more severe cases, extended leave time or termination of alleged perpetrators may be appropriate. 

What Do To If You’re A California Worker Experiencing A Hostile Work Environment 

If you’re the subject of inappropriate behavior of any kind in the workplace, you should first report it to your employer. Whether you have a conversation with your supervisor or make a formal complaint to HR, it’s important to register your discomfort first within your organization.

In cases where your direct supervisor is the source of the harassment, your employer should make another avenue available for you to make your complaint.

Refer to the procedure outlined in your company’s harassment and discrimination policy, and follow it to the letter.

As much as you’re able, collect evidence of the harassing behavior. This will provide a record that can back up your story, as well as a way of preserving your own memory of the incidents. Evidence can include:

  • Digital or physical communications of the abuse (emails, notes, text messages)
  • Memos or work documents
  • Photos of inappropriate signs or drawings
  • Names and contact information of any eyewitnesses to abuse

Also be sure to keep a copy of any official complaints or reports you make within your company about the abuse, as well as the response from your boss or HR. Take notes after any conversations you have about the incidents. 

If the hostile environment is still ongoing, it’s a good idea to document the effect that it has on your health, feelings, and job performance. The more evidence you have of the frequency, severity, and impact of the hostile environment on your life, the stronger basis you have for making a claim. 

Ideally, reporting the incident of inappropriate behavior to your employer would be enough to address it. But if your employer’s response is ineffective or insufficient, you have other options.

For one, employees can file a harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that handles issues of employment discrimination. However, employees only have until 300 days after the incident to make a complaint with the EEOC. 

Registering a formal complaint with the California Civil Rights Department (CRD) is another option, one which grants employees up to three years after their experience of harassment or discrimination to report.

The CRD will investigate the matter and try to resolve the situation between the parties. Otherwise, an employee can request a right-to-sue letter from the CRD and proceed to a civil lawsuit against their employer.

What recovery is available for victims of hostile work environments in California?

Employees victimized by hostile work environments in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and all throughout California have a right to recover financial damages to compensate them for their losses.

If you bring a suit in civil court, you could be entitled to the following remedies:

  • Damages for emotional distress,
  • hiring or reinstatement,
  • back pay or promotion, 
  • changes in policies or practices of the employer, and
  • attorney’s fees.

In rare cases, punitive damages may also be available where an employer has committed an especially malicious or reckless act of discrimination, or where the employer has been shown to have engaged in malice, oppression or fraud, as defined by California Civil Code:

  • Malice: “conduct which is intended … to cause injury … or despicable conduct carried on … with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.”
  • Oppression: “despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights.”
  • Fraud: an “intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of a material fact … with the intention … of thereby depriving a person of property or legal rights or otherwise causing injury.”

Under California law, if another employee was the perpetrator of the hostile work environment, they can be sued and held personally liable for damages, regardless of whether or not their employer knew about the harassment.

But if the situation came from the hands of a supervisor, then the company itself can be held “strictly liable.”

For instance, if a software engineer was subjected to regular jokes and belittling after requesting a disability accommodation from her manager, then her company could be responsible for paying damages for her lawsuit, since the source of the hostile environment was her supervisor.

In these cases, the employer would be liable regardless of whether they knew about the abuse and regardless of whether they took corrective action.

Additionally, employers in California are also liable for damages if they knew (or should have known) about the harassment and failed to take immediate, appropriate corrective action to remedy it.

Get In Contact With A California Employment Lawyer Today

If you’re facing inappropriate behavior in your workplace, you don’t have to suffer in silence. Even if you’re unsure that your situation qualifies as a hostile work environment, an experienced employment attorney can evaluate your situation, answer your questions, and talk you through your options.

Ottinger Employment Lawyers helps employees in California get the restitution they deserve for workplace abuse and harassment.

If you’re a California employee who’s been harassed at work, contact our team today to speak with an experienced attorney about how we can help you.