What is Sexual Harassment?
Harassment of any kind is never acceptable, but sexual harassment in the workplace can be especially toxic. Sexual harassment in California takes many forms and can cause real trauma.
Sexual harassment is sex discrimination in the workplace. It occurs when an applicant or employee is harassed on the basis of their sex. This includes harassment that is sexual in nature as well as behavior that is offensive in regards to a particular sex in general. Under the Fair Employment Housing and Employment Act (“FEHA”), it is illegal for employers of 5 or more employees to sexually harass an employee, applicant, or unpaid intern.
While sexual harassment generally conjures up an image of a male harassing a female, in reality, it can also be a female harassing a male, or a person harassing another person of the same sex. Keep in mind, to be considered harassment, the behavior must be more than a simple offhand, isolated comment. Harassment occurs frequently or is so severe that it results in the harassed individual being forced to work in an offensive or hostile work environment.
In addition, it can be considered sexual harassment when the harassed individual is fired, demoted, or passed over for promotion as a repercussion of the harassment.
Harassing conduct may include, but is not limited to:
- Verbal harassment, such as obscene language, demeaning comments, slurs, or threats, or;
- Physical harassment, such as unwanted touching, assault, or physical interference with normal work movement or;
- Visual harassment, such as offensive posters, objects, cartoons, or drawings, or;
- Unwanted sexual advances
As the above suggests and according to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, two basic types of sexual harassment exist:
- Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a superior or someone in a position of authority (e.g., manager or supervisor) asks for unwanted sexual favors or an inappropriate relationship in return for a promotion, pay raise, a promise not to fire, or other on-the-job benefits; or
- Hostile work environment occurs when employees are allowed to make crude jokes, share pictures or content of a sexual nature, make sexual comments, or other similar behavior to co-workers, thus, creating a hostile work environment
What Should Employers in California Do to Prevent Sexual Harassment?
Employers must take proactive steps to ensure applicants and employees have a safe, comfortable work environment free of hostility, discrimination, and sexual harassment. They can do this by implementing preventive policies and procedures.
Education and Training
Employers should implement company-wide training to educate all employees on what constitutes sexual harassment and how to prevent it. This training should be repeated on a regular basis. It should be kept current, reflecting and incorporating legal updates on the subject.
Open communication regarding sexual harassment should be encouraged, with staff feeling as though they have an outlet to express their concerns.
Enforcement of Unambiguous Policies
Employers should also develop policies that address sexual harassment in the workplace, and make clear that it will not be tolerated. When an employee does complain about sexual harassment, their claim should be investigated and the appropriate punishment given to the harasser, if the complaint is validated.
An employer must address sexual harassment claims timely and appropriately in accordance with federal and state laws. Retaliating against an employee for reporting sexual harassment is unlawful, and action can be taken against the employer.