Sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in the workplace. The law prohibits this practice and even offers specific protection for employees who report sexual harassment to their employers. These laws are designed to help keep the workplaces of California safer for all employees.
There are two main types of workplace sexual harassment. The first is called quid pro quo (“this for that”). Quid pro quo occurs when a supervisor conditions benefits on the employee’s participation in unwanted sexual conduct or acceptance of abusive or offensive conduct that is related to the employee’s gender. The benefit could be a promotion or pay raise – or simply not getting fired. Quid pro quo is not as common because the exchange is so clearly unlawful. Our lawyers see the second type of sexual harassment (a “hostile work environment”) far more often in practice.
A hostile work environment can be created by anyone in the office – not just a supervisor. Jokes, gestures, comments, and sexual actions can all create a hostile work environment if they occur because of the employee’s sex and create a hostile, offensive, oppressive, or intimidating work environment. Such harassing conduct is unlawful when it sufficiently offends, humiliates, or distresses an employee, so as to disrupt their emotional tranquility in the workplace, affect their ability to perform the job as usual, or otherwise interfere with their personal sense of well-being. Many hostile work environment cases go to a jury, so that the plaintiff’s peers can objectively determine whether the environment was hostile or not. An employer is liable for a hostile work environment if it fails to correct the problem after being notified of the situation.
The law does not set specific guidelines for how a company must respond to sexual harassment. The perpetrator does not have to be fired, so it is possible that they will continue working at the company. What is required is for the company to take reasonable measures to stop the sexual harassment. If the perpetrator is written up and stops their sexual behavior, this could be sufficient. But if a “write-up” does not stop the sexual harassment, the company is obligated to take further action.
The law does, however, clearly prohibit your employer from retaliating against you for reporting sexual harassment. Employees are protected from any adverse consequences in their working conditions because of making a report. The most serious instance of retaliation is being fired, but this is not the only way an employer can retaliate against a victim of sexual harassment.
The victim might be assigned to the worst shifts or job duties. The company could deny the employee opportunities for overtime, bonuses, or other compensation. The victim might not have opportunities for advancement. Any adverse change in your working conditions could constitute retaliation, so be sure to consult with a lawyer as soon as you notice even subtle signs of retaliation.