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May 29, 2023

California Hostile Work Environment Guide for Victims with Examples

Legally reviewed by: Jessica Anvar Stotz, JD, MBA

Updated 8/17/23

Table of Contents

What Qualifies as a Hostile Work Environment in California?

Short answer: Under California law, a hostile work environment refers to a work atmosphere that is permeated with discriminatory conduct, based on protected characteristics, that is severe or pervasive enough to create an abusive or intimidating working environment. It occurs when such conduct unreasonably interferes with an employee’s ability to perform their job and has a detrimental impact on their well-being.

California Hostile Work Environment Defined

Do you believe that you are a victim of a hostile work environment in California? You may be looking for examples of hostile workplaces to compare your situation to and see what your options may be.

Most Californians will experience hostility in the workplace at least once in their careers. A hostile work environment goes beyond gossipy coworkers or a hot-headed boss. While highly unprofessional and unfavorable, gossiping and constant disagreements are not considered to be legally “hostile” behaviors- unless such conduct is motivated by hate or discrimination.

In California, a hostile work environment is created when offensive or discriminatory conduct present in the workplace restricts an employee’s ability to perform their job. Racial slurs, threats, bullying, sexual harassment, physical fighting and other offensive behaviors contribute to a hostile working environment. Hostile work environments are essentially toxic spaces that routinely dole out intimidation, harassment, and discrimination.

Workplace harassment does not include disagreements or arguments between people at work, it requires an extra level of cruelty or malice to qualify. If the inappropriate conduct at work is motivated by racial or gender discrimination for instance, then the poor conduct is legally considered “hostile” and actively contributing to a hostile work environment.

The inappropriate conduct must be so pervasive that it alters the working environment and creates an abusive and hostile workplace for employees.

California Hostile Work Environment Overview

Factors Description
Sexual Harassment Unwanted sexual advances or actions
Harassment Unwanted actions or comments creating discomfort
Bullying Repeated mistreatment or humiliation
Retaliation Punishment for reporting issues or asserting rights
Offensive Language Inappropriate or discriminatory remarks
Intimidation Threats or fear-inducing behavior
Discriminatory Policies Unfair rules targeting specific groups
Exclusion Ostracizing certain employees
Unaddressed Complaints Employer neglects to handle reported issues
Inadequate Training Lack of education about appropriate behavior
Unequal Opportunities Biased access to promotions, projects, or benefits

21 Examples of a Hostile Work Environment in California

Hostile work environments can be difficult to identify. The following are some examples of behaviors commonly observed in hostile work environment cases:

  1. Offensive language: Offensive or demeaning language is common in hostile work environments. Examples of offensive language include slurs, epithets, generalizations, stereotypes, put-downs, offensive nicknames, and teasing. Keep in mind that one stray offensive comment does not necessarily make a workplace hostile under California law. The workplace becomes hostile or abusive if this language is constant and targets protected characteristics.
  2. Indecency: Sexually explicit language can create a hostile work environment, even if it is not intended to offend anyone. Displaying sexually suggestive images, discussing sexual activities, or making sexually suggestive jokes may count as unlawful conduct in the workplace. As with offensive language, those pursuing hostile workplace claims should see if there is a pattern of indecent conduct.
  3. Unwelcome gestures or touching: Threatening gestures or touching are examples of the offensive behaviors you may find in a hostile work environment. This conduct must be unwelcomed. If the plaintiff welcomed touching or encouraged specific gestures, they cannot turn around and claim that they found this conduct unacceptable. Unlike offensive language or indecency, one instance of inappropriate touching is enough to create a hostile workplace. If someone at work punches or gropes you, then this one act may be sufficient to render your workplace abusive or oppressive.
  4. Racial harassment: Persistent racial slurs, derogatory comments, or racially motivated jokes can contribute to a hostile work environment, creating a discriminatory and offensive atmosphere for employees of targeted racial backgrounds.
  5. Gender discrimination: Engaging in gender-based discrimination, such as denying certain job assignments or promotions to individuals based on their gender, can contribute to a hostile work environment that perpetuates gender inequality.
  6. Bullying and intimidation: Sustained patterns of bullying, including verbal or non-verbal threats, shouting, or aggressive behavior, can create an intimidating and hostile work environment that negatively impacts employee well-being.
  7. Religious discrimination: Discrimination based on religious beliefs or practices, such as mocking religious practices, making derogatory remarks about a particular religion, or creating obstacles for employees to practice their religion, can contribute to a hostile work environment.
  8. Age discrimination: Treating employees unfairly or making derogatory comments based on their age, such as age-based jokes or denying opportunities for advancement based on age, can contribute to a hostile work environment.
  9. Harassment based on national origin: Engaging in derogatory comments, slurs, or stereotypes targeting an individual’s national origin can contribute to a hostile work environment that creates a discriminatory and offensive atmosphere.
  10. Disability discrimination: Treating employees with disabilities unfairly, making derogatory comments about their disabilities, or failing to provide reasonable accommodations can contribute to a hostile work environment that hinders their ability to perform their job.
  11. Retaliation for whistleblowing: Taking adverse actions against employees who report unlawful or unethical behavior, such as termination, demotion, or ostracism, can create a hostile work environment that discourages others from speaking up.
  12. Sexual orientation discrimination: Discrimination against employees based on their sexual orientation, such as exclusion from professional opportunities or creating a hostile atmosphere through derogatory comments, can contribute to a hostile work environment.
  13. Harassment based on marital status: Making derogatory comments or treating employees differently based on their marital status, such as mocking single individuals or denying benefits to married employees, can contribute to a hostile work environment.
  14. Political affiliation discrimination: Discrimination or creating a hostile work environment based on an employee’s political affiliation, including derogatory comments or excluding individuals based on their political beliefs, can contribute to a hostile work environment.
  15. Pregnancy discrimination: Treating pregnant employees differently, denying them reasonable accommodations, or making derogatory comments about their pregnancy can contribute to a hostile work environment.
  16. Gender identity harassment: Engaging in discriminatory behavior or creating a hostile environment based on an individual’s gender identity or gender expression can contribute to a hostile work environment.
  17. Harassment based on military or veteran status: Discrimination or creating a hostile work environment based on an individual’s military or veteran status, such as mocking or excluding them, can contribute to a hostile work environment.
  18. Discrimination based on citizenship status: Treating employees differently based on their citizenship status, such as denying promotions or benefits, can contribute to a hostile work environment.
  19. Harassment based on language: Engaging in derogatory comments or creating a hostile work environment based on an employee’s language or accent can contribute to a hostile work environment.
  20. Sexual harassment through visual materials: Displaying sexually explicit or pornographic images, videos, or materials in the workplace can contribute to a hostile work environment, even if not directed at specific individuals.
  21. Implicit bias: Creating a hostile work environment through subtle or covert discriminatory actions or biases based on race, gender, or other protected characteristics can contribute to a hostile.

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Unfortunately, not all instances of harassment at work are prohibited under city, state, or federal employment laws. Slight annoyances and isolated incidents are not prohibited by the law, unless these incidents are deemed legally “hostile.”  Harassment at work becomes hostile when it is motivated by a protected characteristic.

Hostile Work Environment Evaluator Quiz

Take this short quiz to help you determine if you are experiencing a hostile work environment or not.

California Laws and Regulations that Protect Employees From Hostile Work Environments

Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)

FEHA is the primary California law that prohibits discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in employment. It covers protected classes, such as race, color, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, and age. FEHA applies to employers with five or more employees.

California Family Rights Act (CFRA)

CFRA provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for specific family and medical reasons, including when an employee’s health condition makes them unable to perform their job or to care for a family member with a serious health condition. The act applies to employers with 50 or more employees.

California Labor Code Section 1102.5

This law protects employees who disclose information to a government or law enforcement agency regarding a violation of state or federal law or regulations, or those who refuse to participate in an activity that would result in a violation of law.

California Labor Code Section 98.6

This section prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who file complaints or exercise their rights under the state’s labor laws.

California Labor Code Section 230

Section 230 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on their legal off-duty conduct, meaning activities or hobbies that occur outside of work hours.

California Labor Code Section 6310

This section makes it unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee for reporting workplace safety concerns or hazards to appropriate government agencies.

California Business and Professions Code Section 16600

This law restricts the use of non-compete agreements in employment contracts, ensuring employees have the right to seek employment freely after leaving a job.

California Business and Professions Code Section 17200

This section addresses unfair competition and includes certain unfair business practices that may impact the work environment.

California Government Code Section 12940

Part of FEHA, this section specifically prohibits harassment and discrimination based on protected characteristics.

California Government Code Section 12965

This section outlines the procedures for filing complaints with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) and pursuing legal remedies for workplace discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

Difference Between a Hostile Work Environment and Harassment

You may also be wondering what the difference between “hostile work environment” and “harassment” is- they typically mean the same thing. Employment attorneys often use these terms interchangeably. Under the law, a hostile work environment case is treated as a case involving harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Example Scenarios of a Hostile Work Environment

Scenario #1

Person A and Person B work in the same department. Person A consistently undermines and belittles Person B’s contributions during team meetings, often interrupting or dismissing their ideas based on their gender. Person A assigns Person B menial tasks while giving more challenging assignments to male colleagues. Person A frequently makes derogatory comments about women, perpetuating gender stereotypes and creating a hostile work environment. Person B feels marginalized, experiences self-doubt, and is subjected to ongoing gender-based discrimination, leading to increased stress and a negative impact on their professional growth and well-being.

Scenario #2

Person A repeatedly displays explicit and pornographic images on their workspace, creating a sexually offensive and uncomfortable atmosphere for Person B and others. Person A engages in explicit conversations, discussing their sexual activities and making lewd remarks about coworkers, including Person B. They consistently make inappropriate sexual jokes and innuendos, subjecting Person B to a continuous pattern of indecent conduct that creates a hostile work environment. Person B feels violated, distressed, and unable to focus on their job due to the ongoing exposure to such indecency, negatively impacting their professional well-being.

Scenario #3

Person A, who holds a senior position, consistently bullies and intimidates Person B, creating a hostile work environment. Person A publicly humiliates Person B in team meetings, belittles their ideas, and dismisses their contributions. They engage in personal attacks, spreading rumors and gossip to undermine Person B’s reputation. Person A uses their authority to assign Person B excessive workloads and unrealistic deadlines, intentionally setting them up for failure. The relentless bullying and intimidation from Person A instill fear, stress, and a sense of powerlessness in Person B, negatively impacting their mental well-being and job performance.

Who can Create a Hostile Work Environment in California?

Several different actors can create a hostile work environment including the employer, co-workers, managers, company executives, agents, contractors, or visitors. Anyone on the premises of the company can contribute to and or create a hostile workplace. Your employer is responsible for the actions of an employee or agent in the workplace representing the employer.

Hostile workplaces can have profound effects on employees such as:

  • Decreased motivation
  • Decline in work performance
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Physical, mental, and or emotional health problems

Keep in mind that you do not have to be the target of workplace harassment to file a claim. Colleagues, co-workers, and other witnesses to the harassment may also be considered victims in a hostile work environment case. Virtually anyone in the workspace can be impacted by hostile conduct, even those who are not the intended targets.

Victims of hostile work environments may file lawsuits against the offenders. The employer may be held liable if the offenders are managers or if the employer fails to take any action despite knowing about a hostile work environment. Some workers may feel hesitant to file claims for these reasons as they fear retaliation from their employer or someone else at work.

Luckily, retaliation for reporting harassment at work is prohibited by the law. You cannot be fired for reporting illegal activity at work, and your employer cannot force you into silence or prevent you from attaining justice.

Employer Responsibilities and Obligations

Preventing Hostile Work Environments

Employers are responsible for taking proactive measures to prevent and address hostile work environments. This includes establishing policies and procedures that prohibit harassment, discrimination, and retaliation based on protected characteristics.

Providing Anti-Harassment Training

Employers with five or more employees are required by law to provide sexual harassment prevention training to all employees. This training must be provided every two years, and it covers the recognition and prevention of workplace harassment.

Responding to Complaints

Employers must establish a clear process for employees to report incidents of harassment, discrimination, or other workplace issues. They should take all complaints seriously and conduct thorough and impartial investigations when complaints are made.

Maintaining Confidentiality

Employers should handle all complaints and investigations with confidentiality to protect the privacy of those involved. Information related to the investigation should be shared only with individuals directly involved in the process.

No Retaliation

Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who make good faith complaints about workplace harassment or discrimination. Retaliation can include adverse actions such as termination, demotion, or negative performance reviews.

Reasonable Accommodations

Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities to enable them to perform their job duties effectively, unless doing so would create undue hardship for the employer.

Posting Workplace Notices

Employers must display workplace posters that inform employees of their rights and protections under state and federal employment laws, including information about harassment and discrimination.


Employers are required to maintain accurate and complete records related to employment, wages, and working conditions. These records should be kept for specified periods, as mandated by relevant labor laws.

Compliance with Wage and Hour Laws

Employers must comply with California’s wage and hour laws, including minimum wage requirements, overtime pay, meal and rest break regulations, and timely payment of wages.

Providing CFRA Leave

Employers with 50 or more employees must provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) for specific family and medical reasons.

Non-Retaliation for Whistleblowing

Employers cannot retaliate against employees who report violations of the law to a government or law enforcement agency.

Maintaining a Safe Workplace

Employers have a duty to provide a safe working environment for employees. This includes taking appropriate measures to prevent workplace accidents and ensuring compliance with occupational health and safety regulations.

*This list is not exhaustive. It’s essential for employers to stay informed about changes in employment laws and regulations in California to ensure ongoing compliance with their responsibilities and obligations.

Failing to meet these obligations can result in legal consequences and reputational damage for the employer.

examples of hostile work environment

How do I Prove a Hostile Work Environment?

Both federal and state laws provide protections for employees subject to hostile working environments. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination and harassment in the workplace associated with what is legally known as an employee’s protected class. Protected classes include age, religion, gender, sex, marital status, color, national origin, disability, religion and other categories.

Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), it is illegal for workers to face discrimination or harassment at work due to any of the protected characteristics listed by the law. If you are being treated poorly at work because you are a member of a legally protected class, you may be in a hostile work environment. FEHA also prohibits employers from refusing to take any action to address workplace harassment.

To prove a hostile work environment and have a successful claim, the plaintiff must demonstrate the following scenarios:

  • They are a member of a protected class
  • They were subject to harassment, discrimination, or some other adverse action because of protected characteristics
  • Such behavior altered the conditions of employment and created an abusive environment
  • Any reasonable person would find the work environment abusive, hostile, or oppressive
  • The plaintiff has exhausted all available administrative remedies
  • The defendant can be held legally responsible

If you believe you may have a hostile work environment claim, you should maintain a record of all oppressive and abusive incidents you observe at work. Include the time, location, date, and whether anyone witnessed it.

If possible, have others in the workplace observe you telling the offender to stop their behavior. Report abusive behavior to the appropriate department at work so that they can try to fix it. Your employer can be held legally responsible if it has received a notice of the harassment but takes no action to stop it.

Ultimately,  workplace harassment can be difficult to identify, as it can be either direct or indirect. In some cases, severe and targeted harassment occurs without targeting a protected class. As such, your best course of action is to work with an employment attorney who can review your case and determine whether you have a valid claim.

Filing a Complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH)

In California, if an employee believes they are experiencing a hostile work environment or facing workplace harassment, discrimination, or retaliation based on protected characteristics, they have the right to file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).

The DFEH is the state agency responsible for enforcing California’s anti-discrimination and harassment laws.

  • Online Complaint Process: The DFEH provides an accessible online complaint process, making it convenient for employees to submit their complaints electronically. The online form guides individuals through the necessary information required for filing a complaint.
  • Toll-Free Hotline: The DFEH also operates a toll-free hotline that employees can call to discuss their concerns and initiate the complaint process. This hotline provides assistance and guidance to individuals who may need support in understanding their rights and options.
  • Investigation by DFEH: Once a complaint is filed, the DFEH will conduct an investigation into the alleged hostile work environment or discriminatory practices. During the investigation, the DFEH may interview witnesses, request relevant documents, and gather evidence to determine whether there has been a violation of the law.
  • Resolution and Remedies: If the DFEH finds evidence of wrongdoing, it may pursue resolution through mediation or conciliation. Additionally, the DFEH can seek remedies on behalf of the aggrieved employee, such as damages, policy changes, and injunctive relief.

Other Legal Avenues and Resources

Apart from filing complaints with the DFEH, employees who face a hostile work environment in California have other legal avenues and resources to consider.

  • Private Legal Action: If an employee is dissatisfied with the outcome of the DFEH investigation or if the DFEH is unable to take action, the employee may choose to pursue a private legal action against their employer. They can engage an attorney who specializes in employment law to represent them in court.
  • California Labor Commissioner’s Office: Employees who experience retaliation, wage and hour violations, or other labor-related issues can seek assistance from the California Labor Commissioner’s Office. This office oversees the enforcement of labor laws and handles complaints related to wage disputes, working conditions, and employee rights.
  • Legal Assistance Organizations: Various non-profit legal aid organizations in California provide free or low-cost legal assistance to employees who are unable to afford private representation. These organizations can help individuals understand their rights and options and provide guidance on legal proceedings.
  • Employer Internal Complaint Process: Employees should also be aware of their employer’s internal complaint process for reporting workplace issues. Many employers have a designated HR department or a policy for reporting complaints internally. Following the internal process may help address the issue without resorting to legal action.

It’s crucial for employees to be aware of their rights and the available resources when facing a hostile work environment or other workplace-related problems. Seeking appropriate legal remedies can help employees protect their rights and work towards fostering a more inclusive and respectful work environment in California.

Is it Worth Suing?

Filing a valid hostile work environment claim is worth it. You should absolutely take legal action if your employer does nothing to fix the harassment and discrimination that you or a colleague are experiencing at work.

Once you have placed an employer on notice, they are obligated to make attempts to remedy the issue. If they refuse or take no action, then your best next step is to pursue a claim with the assistance of a Los Angeles employment attorney.

The legal consequences for a person or business held liable for hostile workplace harassment can be severe. Employers may be legally obligated to reimburse victims of harassment for any of the following damages, among others:

  • Employee backpay
  • Retirement funds
  • Emotional distress
  • Punitive damages
  • Attorney fees

This list includes some of the most common damages awarded in hostile work environment claims. Punitive damages apply to cases where the offender’s conduct was particularly egregious. Depending on the details of your individual case, other damages may apply.

When a worker makes the decision to sue their employer, a coworker, or a supervisor for violating state harassment laws, they must first file a formal written complaint with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). If you are pursuing a claim involving workplace harassment, you may be unable to go straight to court without this important step.

examples of hostile work environment cases

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Deadlines to File in California

In California, workplace harassment is treated as a form of discrimination. The process for filing harassment claims with the DFEH is the same as the process for filing a discrimination complaint with the agency. If your claim is still not resolved after your complaint has been filed with the DFEH, the agency will issue you a document known as a right-to-sue letter which will allow you to introduce a lawsuit.

Keep in mind that there are strict deadlines when pursuing relief for workplace harassment claims. Employees have just one year from the date of the violation to file a complaint against their employer. Employees who have gone through the process and received right-to-sue documents have one year to file a lawsuit in civil court against their employer.

If you are concerned that your claim may be time-barred, you should speak with an employment lawyer immediately. An experienced employment attorney can review the details of your claim and make sure that your case adheres to all appropriate deadlines.

Know that when you report a hostile working environment, you might be seeking relief for several others apart from yourself without even knowing it. Workplace harassers often target more than one person with their offensive and discriminatory conduct.

Neither you nor your coworkers deserve to be subjected to continual harassment or discrimination from an offender at work. Luckily, you do not have to suffer in silence as there are legal options and remedies available.

How can a Lawyer Help me?

If you would like to file a hostile work environment claim, then you will need the assistance and counsel of an experienced employment law attorney. Your attorney can review your situation and determine whether you qualify for relief, as well as assist you in gathering all the evidence of the discrimination and harassment taking place in your work environment.

Hostile work environment cases are often based on evidence, so it is important to have someone on your side who understands this process and can ensure that your case has all the information it needs to be as strong as possible.

The right employment lawyer will maximize what you could receive in compensation. If you reside in the Los Angeles area and believe that you may have a valid hostile work environment claim or have any questions about your situation, you should contact LawLinq as soon as possible.

LawLinq can connect you with a highly reputable Los Angeles hostile work environment lawyer who will help you attain the justice and compensation that you rightfully deserve. Our member attorneys are certified by the California State Bar and are equipped with the knowledge, experience, and qualifications that you need to succeed in your hostile work environment case.

We have a large network of lawyers in the Los Angeles area across many different practice areas so that we can match you with someone specialized in cases like yours.

LawLinq makes it easy to find a Los Angeles hostile work environment attorney quickly by providing you with all the information you need to get started on your claim in one place. With LawLinq, you do not have to waste time searching online or speaking with multiple people to get the legal services you need.

Remember, our services are at no cost or obligation to you. If you reside in the Los Angeles area and suspect that you may have a hostile work environment claim, let us know today. LawLinq can serve as your link to top employment attorneys in Los Angeles.

About the Author

Jessica Anvar

California Consumer Litigation Attorney Jessica Anvar, Esq. is the Founder and Managing Partner of Lemon Law Experts California’s leading lemon law firm. She has multiple years’ worth of experience working with both state and federal lemon laws. Her practice focuses exclusively on consumer protection cases. Ms. Anvar received her J.D. from Loyola Law School. She also earned a Master of Business Administration degree from Loyola Marymount University. Jessica is very active in her local legal community and has helped thousands of clients across the state of California. She has an outstanding record as a true advocate for consumers.

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