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Employment Law - FAQ

Glossary of Common Employment Discrimination and Harassment Terms

As with many other legal topics, the realm of discrimination and harassment seems to have its own language. The following is a glossary of some of the common terms that are used in discrimination and harassment litigation.

Hostile work environment sexual harassment: The basis for a type of harassment claim. Although most hostile work environment claims involve allegations of sexual harassment, a hostile work environment may be based on other protected characteristics, such as an employee's race or religion. A hostile work environment is created where the presence of harassing behavior (in the case of sexual harassment this could include demeaning or sexual photographs, jokes, threats or overall workplace atmosphere) is so severe and pervasive that it creates an intimidating and offensive work environment, and actually alters the terms and conditions of employment.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment: A Latin phrase meaning something for something. Quid pro quo is a type of sexual harassment in which the harasser asks for a sexual favor in return for providing an employment benefit, such as a raise, continued employment, or other favorable treatment.

Same-sex harassment: The type of harassment that occurs when a male sexually harasses a male, or a female sexually harasses a female.

Adverse Employment Action: Any action taken by an employer that negatively affects an employee's job, for example, demotion, firing, discipline, or failure to promote. In most employment discrimination cases, the employee will have to prove that the employer took some sort of adverse employment action in order to win.

At-will employment: A term used to describe many employment relationships. In a nutshell, at-will means that an employee can be fired for any reason or for no reason at all. However, even at-will employees are entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws. If such employees are terminated in violation of one of these laws, they may be able to bring an action against their former employer successfully.

Whistleblower: An employee who discloses the wrongdoing or potential wrongdoing of his or her employer. Whistleblowers, and others who speak out against violations of the law, are protected under several California state and federal statutes for reporting workplace safety violations, reporting harassment or discrimination or for testifying on someone else's behalf in a discrimination case, reporting employers' financial fraud, and other violations.

FEHA: The California Fair Employment California Fair Employment and Housing Act, California Government Code § 12900 et seq., provides that an employer may not harass, discriminate against, or retaliate against, a person, because of their gender (sexual harassment), race, color, age, or medical condition, in the "terms, conditions, or privileges of employment." Further, the FEHA states that it is unlawful for any person to aid, abet, incite, compel, or coerce the doing of any acts forbidden under the FEHA or to attempt to do so.

The FEHA also requires employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent harassment from being inflicted upon employees. In other words, if an employer's knows of the harassment, discrimination, defamation, retaliation, and other conduct being inflicted upon an employee, or should have known of such conduct, and failed to take reasonable, immediate and appropriate corrective action, the employer may be liable under the FEHA.

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