Understanding sexual harassment in the California workplace

Understanding what sexual harassment in California is and what to do about it can help protect employees.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission acknowledges that sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious issue. The commission notes that of the 19,605 claims women filed in 2014, two of the most frequently cited charges was harassment or sexual harassment. Though many people think of victims of harassment as women, it is important to point out, however, that both men and women in California can suffer sexual harassment.

Many times, people either may not realize they have been harassed, or they are unsure of what to do when it happens. Gaining some clarity on the issue can ensure a safe and hospitable environment.

What is sexual harassment?

In California, the Fair Employment and Housing Act sets the standard for what sexual harassment is. Generally, as the California Department of Fair employment and Housing states, any visual, physical or verbal sexual conduct could be considered harassment, as well as any unwanted sexual advance.

In other words, any of the following may be considered sexual harassment:

  • Making sexual gestures
  • Displaying pictures or content that is sexual in nature
  • Impeding someone from moving
  • Making derogatory jokes or comments
  • Requesting sexual favors in exchange for certain workplace benefits

These are just a few of the items that someone may experience. Anyone who feels uncomfortable with something sexual in nature has possibly encountered sexual harassment.

What should I do if I have been harassed?

One of the immediate actions someone who has been harassed can take is to say something. In some cases, it is possible that the offender was not aware that his or her behavior was inappropriate. A conversation could address the issue and prevent it from occurring again.

When that is not enough, however, workers should contact their supervisors or human resources department. Many employers have a procedure in place for filing a report. People can expect to have to recount the event. It is also important to put any statements or timelines in writing and keep a copy of any such documents.

What if the issue still isn't resolved?

Some companies try to hide or dismiss sexual harassment claims. In these cases, it is possible to file a claim with the EEOC, which will speak the to employer on behalf of the worker. If the company still will not resolve the matter, the EEOC may provide the worker with a "right to sue" letter. Employers are considered strictly liable when their supervisors commit sexual harassment, and the individual who committed the offense could be held personally liable.

What should the company do?

Employers are supposed to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace. In other words, they are expected to inform employees about what the act is and how it can be prevented. According to the California DFEH, a company that has 50 or more employees is expected to provide two hours of training on the topic.

Sexual harassment can present other issues in addition to the embarrassment or anger a victim may feel. Retaliation, wrongful termination and other concerns may arise. Anyone who has questions about this issue should speak to an employment lawyer in California.