California Employment Law: Verbal Harassment at Workplace

Generally, under California law, sexual harassment hostile work environment is an unlawful conduct at work place which involves unwelcome sexual advances of a co-worker or a supervisor, which may include sexual innuendos, offensive, inappropriate and sexual touching, and alike. Although these are typical examples of a conduct which is likely to be classified as sexual harassment, the offensive words or conduct directed at an employee because of his or her gender alone may create a hostile work environment even if those words or conduct are not sexual in nature. For example, even though an isolated incident of calling an employee a “bitch” will ordinarily not amount to harassment, using the word “bitch” repetitively in the presence of both men and women but in reference to women may constitute unlawful gender harassment, especially if coupled with other harassing conduct.

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On the other hand, hostile words or conduct based solely on personal animosity are not actionable as sexual harassment in California even if the victim is of the opposite gender. As the court pointed out in once case – “Unfair, overbearing, or annoying treatment of an employee, standing alone, cannot constitute a sex discrimination claim. In other words, a conduct that is based on personal agenda or anger and not on gender is not grounds to claims for sexual harassment. For instance, if a boss and a particular employee are not compatible and simply can’t get along, it would not be sexually discriminatory to harass employee on that basis. In other words, sexual/gender harassment requires showing that the employee was treated a certain way because of his or her gender. Thus, one California court noted that where the employee was the only woman on the workforce, her coworkers’ acts of insubordination, dissemination of untrue rumors about her, and aspersions on her competence may contribute to a hostile work environment based on sex.