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Sexual harassment vs. flirting at work: How to know the difference


Perhaps you are reading this because you are experiencing sexual harassment at work. Or maybe you are experiencing unwanted flirting or attention from a coworker, but you don't know if it constitutes sexual harassment - and you don't know what to do about it.

First and foremost, it is important to remember that workplace sexual harassment is illegal. The law protects you, the victim.

When your employer fails to take steps to stop this unwanted attention, it is advisable to talk to an employment law attorney.

Understanding California's Sexual Harassment Laws

As a victim, it is natural for you to have many questions about what you are experiencing: Is it flirting or is it sexual harassment? It is important to understand how California law defines sexual harassment:

  • Quid pro quo sexual harassment: The promise of a promotion or pay raise in exchange for sexual favors, for example.
  • Hostile work environment sexual harassment: This type of harassment may involve:
    • Unwanted touching or massaging
    • Repeatedly asking for date
    • Continual unwanted flirting
    • Making inappropriate comments about appearance
    • Making sexual comments
    • Displaying pornographic images on computer or via email

In quid pro quo sexual harassment, a single event can be considered sexual harassment. With hostile work environment sexual harassment, events may build up over time.


Flirting may be considered sexual harassment when the words or actions are unwanted and the aggressor refuses to stop. But is there any way to know for sure? Here are some scenarios to consider:

  • Possibly not sexual harassment: If a coworker asks you out, you say no, and there is no further contact
  • Possibly sexual harassment: If a coworker asks you out, you say no, and the coworker continues to pressure you for a date
  • Possibly not sexual harassment: If a coworker flirts with you, you tell him or her to stop, and the behavior stops
  • Possibly sexual harassment: If a coworker flirts with you, you tell him or her to stop, and he or she continues to flirt with you

Sometimes telling a coworker to stop may be enough. Sometimes it is necessary to take the issue to HR. In some cases, when HR dismisses your complaints or does little or nothing to stop the behavior, it may be time to talk to an employment law attorney.

If you believe you have experienced sexual harassment at work, please talk to a lawyer from Bononi Law Group, LLP. If you have been fired, demoted or otherwise discriminated against for reporting sexual harassment, please schedule a free consultation with us. You may be entitled to compensation. 

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