Both state and federal civil rights laws impose responsibilities on California employers to prevent sexual harassment of employees.
In autumn 2015, the federal government sued a Southern California restaurant for the alleged sexual harassment of young, male Mexican-American employees by secretly videotaping them in the staff restroom, according to a press release by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC – the federal agency tasked with enforcing the nation’s anti-discrimination in employment laws – also alleged that the employer unlawfully retaliated against a worker who reported the situation to police and to the restaurant owner by demotion, reduction in hours and excessive discipline, giving the employee no option but to quit his job.
Reportedly, the lawsuit asks for a court order that the restaurant cease such behavior and for compensation and back pay for affected workers.
Sexual harassment is illegal under both federal and California state laws. Like the EEOC on the federal level, state employment discrimination laws are enforced by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, a state agency known as DFEH.
An employee who is the victim of sexual harassment may have more than one legal remedy as this area of law involves a particularly complex interplay of state and federal agencies and courts that includes complicated notice, filing and deadline requirements. It is extremely helpful for such a victim to consult as early as possible with an attorney who can advise the worker about potential legal options like complaints and lawsuits and how to preserve or assert them, launch an investigation on behalf of the victim and provide guidance about communicating with the employer.
One kind of sexual harassment is called quid pro quo in which a request for a sexual favor is made as a condition of being hired or receiving a perk like a promotion, special assignment or job benefit. It is also illegal to use a request for sexual favor as a condition to prevent negative employment action like being fired or demoted.
Hostile work environment is the other kind of sexual harassment in employment. A hostile work environment is created when unwelcome conduct that is sexual in nature or based on gender unreasonably interferes with a worker’s job performance or creates an atmosphere that is intimidating, offensive or hostile. To create such an illegal environment, the behavior must be either severe like a sexual assault or pervasive, meaning occurring regularly over a period of time.
Examples of the kinds of acts that contribute to a hostile environment include:
- Unwanted touching
- Crude humor or comments
- Suggestive notes or online communication
- Display of pornographic images
- Physical blocking or placing the body uncomfortably close to that of the victim
- Repeated requests for dates or sex
Interestingly, a hostile work environment can be experienced not only by the intended victim of the unwanted behavior, but also by bystanders who also work there, if the acts intended for the victim also impact the environment of others in the vicinity. In addition, perpetrators can be of either gender and can target victims of the same or the opposite sex.
This is a brief introduction to a very complicated and important area of employment law that can be explained further by experienced legal counsel.
Attorney Stephen B. Morris of San Diego-based The Law Office of Stephen B. Morris represents sexual harassment victims throughout the Orange County, California, area.