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When Does Workplace Harassment Become a Crime?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Jun 13, 2024

Let's review when workplace harassment becomes a criminal offense in California. Workplace harassment is a serious issue that affects employees' well-being and productivity.

In California, workplace harassment can escalate from a civil matter to a criminal offense under certain circumstances. If you are accused of workplace harassment in general, you may be sued and face liability damages in civil court.

When Does Workplace Harassment Become a Crime?
Workplace harassment in California can sometimes become a criminal offense.

If your alleged behavior crosses the line into criminal activity, you could also face criminal charges and even jail time, even if no civil claims are filed and are entirely separate from such claims.

Under federal employment law and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), sexual harassment has its own legal definition. FEHA defines harassment as unwelcome conduct based on protected characteristics, such as race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.

Harassment can take many forms, such as verbal abuse, physical aggression, and unwanted touching. Employers are responsible for preventing and addressing workplace harassment.

They must have policies in place to prevent harassment, investigate claims of harassment, and take action against those who engage in such behavior.

The California Labor Code provides for whistleblower protection for employees who report workplace harassment. In addition to FEHA, other laws provide legal consequences for workplace harassment in California.

For example, the California Penal Code makes it a crime to engage in sexual harassment, which can result in fines and imprisonment. Also, victims of workplace harassment to obtain restraining orders to prevent further harassment.

Notably, the legal consequences for workplace harassment extend beyond financial liability and criminal charges. Employers liable for harassment can also face significant reputational damage and negative publicity that can harm their brand and ability to attract and retain top talent.

Victims of workplace harassment can suffer long-term emotional trauma and damage to their careers, which can have lasting effects on their mental health and earning potential. Thus, employers must take steps to prevent and address workplace harassment to comply with the law and create a healthy and productive workplace culture.

What Are the Common Types of Workplace Harassment?

Generally speaking, workplace harassment is any unwelcome behavior that demeans, humiliates, or intimidates an employee.

This behavior can create a hostile work environment or result in adverse employment decisions. The harassment can be verbal, physical, or written and can come from supervisors, co-workers, or clients.

There are some common types of workplace harassment. California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) identifies two main types of workplace harassment:

  1. Quid Pro Quo Harassment: This is a form of sexual harassment that occurs when employment decisions, such as promotions or job retention, are based on the acceptance or rejection of unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors. For instance, if a manager offers a promotion in exchange for sexual favors, this is quid pro quo harassment.
  2. Hostile Work Environment: This type of harassment involves behavior that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. It includes repeated acts of discrimination, offensive jokes, slurs, or other verbal and physical conduct that affect an employee's ability to perform their job.

When Does Workplace Harassment Become a Criminal Offense?

In most cases, workplace harassment is a civil matter in which the victim may be compensated for emotional distress, back pay, punitive damages, etc.


The person who did the harassment may be legally liable for these damages. Still, employers can also be liable for harassment if they knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take appropriate corrective action.

In California, workplace harassment crosses into criminal territory when the behavior violates specific criminal statutes. Below are some of the most common criminal laws related to workplace harassment in California:

Stalking - Penal Code 646.9 PC

Stalking involves repeatedly following, harassing, or threatening someone to the point where the person fears for their safety or the safety of their immediate family. Under California Penal Code 646.9, stalking is a criminal offense if it includes:

  • Willfully and maliciously following or harassing another person.
  • Making a credible threat to place that person in reasonable fear for their safety or the safety of their immediate family.

Workplace stalking can occur if, for example, an employee repeatedly follows a co-worker home, sends threatening messages, or engages in other behaviors that cause the victim to fear for their safety. 

Cyber Harassment - Penal Code 653.2 PC

Cyber harassment, also known as cyberstalking, involves using electronic communication to harass, threaten, or intimidate someone. Under California Penal Code 653.2, it is illegal to use electronic communication to:

  • Make repeated threats with the intent to place the victim in fear for their safety.
  • Use an electronic device to harass someone in a manner that is highly offensive and intended to cause emotional distress.

Examples of cyber harassment in the workplace include sending threatening emails, text messages, or social media posts to or about another employee.

Criminal Threats - Penal Code 422 PC

Criminal threats involve threatening to commit a crime that will result in death or great bodily injury to another person, with the intent that the statement, made verbally, in writing, or electronically, is taken as a threat. Under California Penal Code 422, a criminal threat is characterized by:

  • Making a threat to kill or physically harm someone.
  • The threat being unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific, causing the person to fear for their safety.

In a workplace context, if an employee threatens to harm a co-worker or their family, this can be charged as a criminal threat. Even without physical harm, making a credible threat can lead to criminal charges.

What are the Penalties for Criminal Workplace Harassment?

When workplace harassment escalates to a criminal offense, it may come with severe consequences. If you're charged with a crime related to workplace harassment, you could face:

  • Imprisonment, fines, probation, and a criminal record.
  • Restraining orders that prohibit contact with the victim, which, in the case of workplace harassment, may mean you can no longer work in the same office with that person.
  • Loss of employment and damage to professional reputation.

What are the Defense Strategies?

If you're accused of criminal workplace harassment, seeking representation from a California criminal defense lawyer is crucial. Common defense strategies may include:

  • Demonstrating lack of intent: Prosecutors must typically prove you willfully intended to harass the victim. Your attorney may argue that the behavior was not meant to threaten or harass.
  • Challenging the threat's credibility: Showing that the threat was not credible or did not cause reasonable fear.

Contact our California criminal defense law firm for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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