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How Should an Employer Respond to a Sexual Harassment Complaint?

DATE: July 20th, 2021

California law prohibits harassment in the workplace, whether it be sexual harassment or non-sexual harassment. Under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, found in Government Code 12940, employees who experience harassment may have the right to sue their employer for damages. 

Sexual harassment complaint

In 2015, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing – the government agency responsible for enforcing California sexual harassment laws – received almost 5,000 complaints of sexual harassment alone. 

Complaints and lawsuits alleging sexual and other forms of workplace harassment are common enough in California that every employer needs to be aware of the basics of harassment law. By the same token, California employees should be aware of their rights when they are confronted with a potential harassment case. 

What Is Sexual Harassment Under California Law? 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sexual harassment under federal law, while California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act does the same on the state level. Both these statutes consider sexual harassment as a form of employment discrimination. But what actions count as sexual harassment? Under Federal and California sexual harassment law, these activities in the workplace may constitute sexual harassment: 

– Derogatory slurs, jokes, epithets, or comments.
– Unwanted sexual offers.
– Offering benefits in exchange for sexual favors.
– Adverse impacts following a complaint about harassment, including loss of benefits or employment.
– Displaying or giving out sexually suggestive pictures, posters, cartoons, or objects.
– Having someone block or impede your movements.
– Unwanted physical contact.
– Discussion of sexual acts.
– Threats to endanger your conditions of employment or benefits if you don’t comply with a sexual request.
– Leering.
– Sexually suggestive or obscene messages, graphic comments, and sexually degrading words. 

Note that some actions on this list, if welcomed by the recipient, would not count as sexual harassment—such as an employee asking out their coworker and the coworker agreeing to go on a date. However, an action being “welcome” at one point does not mean that it cannot become “unwelcome” in a later circumstance. While Title VII only applies to employers with fifteen or more employees, California’s sexual harassment laws apply to all private, state, and local employers, regardless of their workforce size.  

What Can Employers Do to Prevent Workplace Harassment? 

No California employer wants to have a workplace tainted by ongoing harassment. And it is certainly the case that no California employer wants the financial burden, bad publicity or impact on employee morale of a harassment lawsuit. 

California Labor Solutions advises employers to take the following five steps to prevent sexual harassment and other forms of harassment in the workplace: 

– Create a written policy against harassment with a clear complaint procedure;
– Communicate the anti-harassment policy to all employees;
– Train both employees and supervisors on the anti-harassment policy;
– Post the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing’s (DFEH’s) poster on harassment in a prominent place; and
– Distribute the DFEH brochure on harassment to all employees and supervisors.
– Institute an ombusdman and/or establish conflict resolution resource to allow employees an opportunity to informally resolve issues. 

Not even the most diligent efforts by employers are a guarantee against harassment occurring. But measures like the ones listed above are helpful even in the worst-case scenario where harassment does occur–since they can help the employer defend itself against charges of negligence in a potential workplace harassment lawsuit. 

How Should an Employer Respond to a Complaint? 

If an employee alleges that workplace harassment has occurred, the employer respond with the following seven measures: 

– Listen attentively to the employee’s allegations;
– Take immediate action and reasonable steps pending an investigation (for example, by altering work assignments or schedules so that the complaining employee no longer needs to work with the alleged harasser(s));
– Investigate the complaint thoroughly–preferably with the help of a neutral, knowledgeable third party;
– Draw reasonable, good-faith conclusions based on the results of the investigation;
– Inform both parties of the investigation results, preferably in writing;
– Take appropriate measures to protect the harassed employee and enforce the anti-harassment policy (for example, terminating or disciplining the harasser, and/or changing work schedules or responsibilities so that the harasser no longer supervises or works with the victim); and
– Reevaluate the company’s anti-harassment policy or implementation to see if more could be done to prevent future incidents of workplace harassment. 

California Labor Solutions offers comprehensive sexual harassment prevention training. Your trainer will have the legally required knowledge and expertise to conduct this training and provide an engaging experience. The highly interactive trainings allows for your team to receive answers to their questions in real-time, reducing distractions, and maximizing participation.

In addition, California Labor Solutions provides workplace investigations, including complaints of sexual harassment.

You employees will enjoy a dynamic high-quality presentation by Mr. Shawn Larry who will draw from his experience as a licensed workplace complaint investigator, HR Director, and former EEO Officer.

If you are looking for affordable premium employee training services, California Labor Solutions is your best choice.

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