Workplace Harassment IS Legal UNLESS Motivated by an Illegal Reason | Justice for Workers

by | Oct 31, 2023 | English Blog

In California, physical threats and physical assaults within the workplace are illegal and prohibited. Nowadays, a majority of cases do not entail such illegal and criminal behavior. Instead, most instances of workplace harassment manifest in verbal, written, or implied forms.

Surprisingly, many behaviors that most individuals would perceive as “harassment” are perfectly legal in California. For such conduct to be considered illegal, it must be motivated by an unlawful rationale. Specifically, the target of the behavior must be singled out or specifically targeted due to a characteristic protected by law.

Question: My supervisor is mean and rude to his subordinates at work. He yelled at me and embarrassed me in front of my co-workers for making a small mistake. He also insulted my other co-workers for not meeting sales goals. Can we sue my supervisor for a hostile work environment?

Answer: It is highly likely that your supervisor’s behavior does not constitute unlawful workplace harassment or a hostile work environment, as his actions were not motivated by an unlawful reason.

The remainder of this article will delve into the most prevalent protected characteristics under California’s anti-harassment laws. It is worth noting that while many examples pertain to “employees” being safeguarded, California’s anti-harassment laws extend protection to almost all types of workers, including employees, job applicants, independent contractors, unpaid interns, and volunteers.



Harassment based on age arises when a worker over the age of 40 encounters less favorable treatment due to their age. Both state and federal laws prohibit employers from subjecting a worker to harassment based on their age, provided the worker is over 40 years old.


Race, Color, National Origin, or Ancestry

In California, it is unlawful for employers to subject workers to harassment based on race, skin color, national origin, or ancestry. This prohibition extends to harassment based on association with individuals of other races, skin colors, national origins, or ancestries. Workers are protected even if they belong to racial groups that have not historically faced discrimination.



Harassing someone due to their religious beliefs is considered unlawful. The term “religious belief” encompasses all aspects of religious practices, including actual belief, profession of belief, and outward signs of religious belief.


Physical Disabilities

In most cases, physical disabilities refer to any bodily condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss that affects one or more of the body’s major systems, thereby limiting a major life activity. Workers have the right to be free from harassment based on their physical disability.


Mental Disabilities

A mental disability is any mental or psychological condition that limits a major life activity. Employees have the right to be free from harassment due to their mental disability.


Medical Condition

A medical condition encompasses any genetic characteristic linked to a disease or a health impairment related to a cancer diagnosis. Employees with medical conditions are protected, even if they are not currently experiencing symptoms.


Genetic Information

Employers in California are prohibited from gathering genetic information from an employee or prospective employee for employment-related decisions.


Marital Status

Employers are prohibited from harassing employees based on their marital status. However, it is not considered harassment or discrimination if employers take certain actions to minimize potential issues related to married coworkers.



Employers in California may not discriminate against or harass individuals based on their sex. The term “sex” in this context encompasses various factors, including pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, physical gender, gender identity, and gender expression.

The laws regarding sexual harassment in California is quite extensive. Therefore, we will cover them in a separate article.



Harassing a pregnant employee on the basis of their pregnancy is unlawful in California.


Gender, Gender Identity, or Gender Expression

Employers are forbidden from harassing employees based on their gender, gender identity, or gender expression. These terms encompass a person’s gender-related appearance and behavior.


Sexual Orientation

In California, it is illegal for an employer to harass an individual based on their sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation.


Military or Veteran Status

Harassing active and veteran military service members is illegal in California.


Please note that while the above summaries provide an overview, the actual legal definitions and implications of these terms can be more nuanced. It is advisable to consult with a legal professional for specific advice or guidance regarding any legal matters.



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