The Most Common Examples of Sexual Harassment


Sexual harassment can take wide-ranging forms, and if you have been victimized by any of them on the job, it’s time to consult with an experienced California sexual harassment attorney.

Sexual harassment can take many different forms, and they are all damaging. California takes sexual harassment very seriously – calling it a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. If you think you may be the victim of sexual harassment, you likely are, but better understanding some of the most common forms of sexual harassment can help you better understand your own case. If you find yourself in the challenging position of having been sexually harassed on the job, you need the professional legal guidance of an experienced California sexual harassment attorney in your corner.

Defining Sexual Harassment

To begin, sexual harassment refers to offensive conduct that is not necessarily predicated on sexual desire but can, instead, be based on any of the following:

  • an employee’s actual or perceived sex
  • an employee’s actual or perceived gender identity
  • an employee’s actual or perceived gender expression
  • an employee’s actual or perceived sexual orientation
  • an employee’s marital status
  • an employee’s condition of being pregnant, giving birth, or having a medical condition that is related to childbirth

It’s important to note that the person carrying out the sexual harassment need not be a different sex than the person who is being sexually harassed. While the motivation behind sexual harassment is clearly outlined by the courts, the same is not true in relation to what constitutes sexual harassment.

For Example

Although sexual harassment can be difficult to put into words, when you experience it, it is difficult to ignore. Consider the following all-too-common examples:

  • when someone at work makes derogatory comments or slurs or uses epithets about you or about someone else in front of you
  • when someone at work engages in unwanted touching, such as rubbing your back or shoulders, patting your rear, accidentally brushing up against your body, pinching you, or engaging in any other form of touch that you do not welcome
  • when someone at work leers or makes crude gestures toward you
  • when someone at work makes unwelcome sexual propositions to you
  • when someone at work physically impedes or blocks your ability to move according to your wishes
  • when someone at work takes to discussing sexual acts with you or in front of you in a manner that you do not welcome
  • when someone at work displays, shows, or gives you unwelcome sexually suggestive objects, cartoons, pictures, or posters
  • when someone at work makes graphic comments, uses sexually degrading words, is sexually suggestive toward you, or leaves obscene invitations or messages for you
  • when a superior threatens to reduce your work hours, your wages, or your benefits – or to harm your employment status otherwise – if you fail to comply with their sexual proposition
  • when employment or work perks are offered in exchange for sexual favors
  • when a superior at work engages in favoritism or otherwise unequal treatment of employees

Each of these examples is very pointed, and while the harassment may not lead to immediate negative effects, the consequences of even relatively mild sexual harassment can build over time. And serious examples of sexual harassment can be immediately harmful.

Sexual Harassers Unmasked

People who sexually harass others are often very good at what they do, and they sometimes hone their skills to the degree that they can get away with the harassment far longer than they otherwise might. The better acquainted you are with some of the most common types of sexual harassers, the better prepared you will be to address the matter head-on.

The Slow Reveal

Some sexual harassers employ what amounts to grooming in the sense that they begin slipping in only very slightly objectionable moves or comments and building upon them over time. Because you may not have reacted negatively from the outset, the person victimizing you continues building toward straight-up harassment that is impossible to ignore. In such instances, it’s important to remind yourself that your harasser’s slow reveal was deliberate and is in no way an indictment of your failure to recognize the sexual harassment earlier.

The Joker

Some sexual harassers make everything an over-the-top joke, which clouds the issue and makes it difficult to pinpoint what is truly objectionable and what isn’t. The fact is that even a joke can be sexual harassment, and if it makes you, or anyone else, feel uncomfortable or harassed – or if it touches on a topic that shouldn’t be discussed in the workplace – it can be sexual harassment – and should not be tolerated.

The Bawdy Atmosphere

Some sexual harassers make it their mission to turn the entire office into a free-for-all – with constant noise, antics, general unruliness, and beyond. Doing so helps to muddy the waters. If the entire workplace is perpetually off-kilter, it makes spotting sexual harassment that much more challenging.

The Sneak

Some sexual harassers are very intent on what they’re doing, and these sneaks tend to be the most destructive of all. Sneaky sexual harassers are very careful about never leaving a trace of evidence and only engaging in sexually harassing behaviors when their identified target – and their identified target alone – is nearby. Often this type of sexual harassment takes the form of low comments and brief touches, which can be especially unnerving and can escalate.

Quid Pro Quo vs. Hostile Work Environment

Most sexual harassment charges are grouped into either quid pro quo sexual harassment or hostile work environment sexual harassment categories – both of which can be intertwined. While some sexual harassment falls into both categories at once, it can help to have a thorough understanding of each classification.

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase that we use to mean this for that. When sexual harassment is grouped in this category, it generally means that a specific sexual favor is requested – or demanded – in exchange for a job-related benefit. For example, if you do X, Y, or Z, I’ll give you that raise you’ve been asking for.

Primary Classifications

Quid pro quo sexual harassment is further divided into the following two classifications:

  • a superior who offers an employee a work-related benefit in exchange for a sexual favor
  • a superior who threatens an employee with a negative consequence unless they submit to a sexual demand

One Occurrence

Quid pro quo sexual harassment cases tend to be less ambiguous than those involving other kinds of sexual harassment because they include a direct offer or demand that typically relates to one of the following:

  • unwelcome sexual advances
  • unwelcome discussions of graphic sexual acts
  • commentary on the employee’s body and the sexual uses that apply

It’s important to note that quid pro quo sexual harassment can be either expressed or implied, which means even hinting at an exchange of sexual favors for a work-related benefit can suffice. In other words, one instance of quid pro quo sexual harassment can make a case. While proving you experienced a negative work consequence for not submitting to a superior’s sexual demands gives you more to work with, proving that you didn’t receive a benefit because you didn’t submit to your boss’s advances can be far more challenging to prove.

Ultimately, bringing a successful sexual harassment case is a complex legal matter, and having professional legal counsel on your side is always well advised.

Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment

When sexual harassment is categorized as creating a hostile work environment, it refers to a pervasive concern that renders the entire work environment hostile.


While sexual harassment need not be related to sexual desire, it must be either a serious concern, a frequent concern, or both. For conduct in this category to be illegal, it must be clearly abusive or hostile, which means that a mildly offensive random remark is unlikely to make the grade.

Another requirement when it comes to a hostile work environment sexual harassment is that the victim was actually offended, humiliated, or distressed by the exchanges in question. When the victim of the sexual harassment exhibits no sign of being affected by it or when they are deemed to have invited it, a hostile work environment label is unlikely to stick.

Proving Negative Effects

To prove that the questionable actions affected you negatively, you’ll need to demonstrate that at least one of the following applies:

  • your emotional equanimity in the workplace was upset
  • your ability to do your job was affected
  • your overall well-being was undermined

To rise to the level of creating a hostile work environment, there typically has to be more than one instance of sexual harassment, which means you’ll likely need to demonstrate that there was a pattern of harassment in the workplace. In rare instances, a very serious occurrence of sexual harassment, such as a physical assault or rape, suffices in supporting a hostile work environment claim.

Identifying Hostile Work Environments

When California courts are called upon to identify hostile work environments, they turn to the following determinative factors:

  • The conduct’s severity is taken into careful consideration. For example, touching that is not welcome is more likely to be classified as illegal than vague comments are. The more egregious the conduct, the less often it needs to occur to qualify as creating a hostile work environment.
  • The conduct’s frequency is similarly reviewed. When the conduct happens often enough, even relatively minor examples can be identified as pervasive and, thus, as creating or contributing to a hostile work environment.
  • The context of the conduct will also be examined, meaning that the circumstances supporting the sexual harassment will be parsed to determine if they make it more or less out of place. For example, if the harassment took place only outside of the workplace – such as at work functions – it may turn the dial down a notch or two in terms of egregiousness.

Every sexual harassment case plays out in its own unique way – in accordance with the unique circumstances involved – and the court weighs each consideration in relation to the overall case itself. Put another way, it’s complicated, but a seasoned sexual harassment attorney is standing by to help.

A Note About Gender

Sexual harassment laws are meant to protect women, men, and people with all other gender identities equally. Sexual harassment against men, in other words, is no less illegal – or objectionable – than sexual harassment against women is. Sexual harassment by someone who is the same sex as you still qualifies as sexual harassment. As such, the issue of gender is rendered irrelevant for the purposes of sexual harassment. The only concern is identifying actions and situations that are against the law and defending your legal rights in the face of either.

Don’t Wait to Consult with an Experienced California Sexual Harassment Attorney

The formidable sexual harassment attorneys at Blair & Ramirez LLP in Los Angeles are fierce advocates of those harmed by sexual harassment, and we pour the full scope of our imposing experience and legal skill into every case we take on. Your physical, financial, and emotional legal damages – or losses – can be immense and should not be ignored.

Our focused legal team cares about you and your case and has the keen legal insight and resources to help. To gain a better perspective of your case, we offer a free case evaluator that will afford you a view of its strengths and challenges and how best to proceed. Recovering on your losses is important, so please do not wait to reach out and contact or call us at 213-568-4000 to learn more about what we can do to help you today.