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Can one incident constitute illegal sexual harassment?

On Behalf of | Mar 25, 2022 | Employment Law

In certain circumstances, yes. This is because there are two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

Both types of sexual harassment involve unwelcome sexual conduct that is made a term or condition of employment. Both types are forms of gender discrimination under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

A hostile work environment is one where the offensive behavior is severe or pervasive. Therefore, a single incident is very unlikely to be enough to qualify.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment is different. “Quid pro quo” means, essentially, “something for something.” This type of harassment occurs when someone in power makes unwanted sexual advances and makes accepting those advances a condition of keeping your job. Or, they may offer job-related benefits if you accept.

For example, suppose your boss wants to date you. You don’t, but he or she makes clear that you will lose your job, give up privileges, or otherwise suffer in your job if you don’t agree.

Quid pro quo and a hostile work environment often occur simultaneously

Quid pro quo sexual harassment and a hostile work environment can be hard to tell apart. Indeed, they are often found together.

For example, a supervisor might be in the habit of making sexist jokes. If this were severe or pervasive, it could constitute a hostile work environment. At the same time, if the supervisor threatened someone with demotion if they didn’t go along with the jokes, that could be considered quid pro quo harassment.

Whether sexual harassment creates a hostile work environment or occurs in the context of quid pro quo, it must involve unwelcome sexual conduct. Further, the conduct must “unreasonably interfere with an individual’s work performance” or create “an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.”

How do I tell if what happened to me broke the law?

When you file a complaint with the EEOC or the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), the agency generally considers whether a reasonable person would have found the conduct offensive to the point that it substantially affected their ability to work.

However, there are steps you have to take before you can file a complaint with the EEOC or DFEH. For example, in most cases you must file a formal complaint with your employer. This is why it can be helpful to discuss your situation with a lawyer before you take any concrete steps.

Leigh Law Group represents employees in sexual harassment and discrimination cases across California.