Workplace sexual harassment continues to be a serious issue that affects employees across industries. Recent high-profile cases and the #MeToo movement have drawn further attention to the prevalence of sexual harassment and the need for organizations to take steps to prevent it. As an employer in California, it’s essential to understand your responsibilities when it comes to preventing sexual harassment and fostering a workplace free from discrimination.
In this article, we’ll discuss what constitutes sexual harassment, review California laws prohibiting harassment, and provide actionable strategies your organization can implement to prevent workplace sexual harassment.
Understanding Workplace Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment examples include any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. This can encompass a range of inappropriate behaviors, such as:
- Sexual comments, jokes, or gestures
- Displaying explicit images or materials in the workplace
- Unwanted sexual advances
- Requests for sexual favors
- Sexual touching or physical contact
- Conditioning promotions or other opportunities for sexual conduct
Harassment can occur between co-workers, between managers and subordinates, or between employees and third parties such as customers or vendors. Both men and women can be victims of sexual harassment. It’s important to note that harassment based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or same-sex harassment is also prohibited under California law.
The Impact of Sexual Harassment
Cases of sexual harassment can have a profound impact on the victims, leading to emotional distress, decreased job satisfaction, and even health issues. Additionally, it can harm the workplace environment, leading to increased turnover, lower productivity, and potential legal issues. Harassment claims and cases involving sexual harassment can tarnish the organization’s reputation, making it difficult to attract and retain talent.
California Laws Prohibiting Sexual Harassment
California has stringent laws prohibiting and penalizing workplace sexual harassment. Key laws include:
- The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) makes it illegal for employers with 5 or more employees to harass or discriminate against employees on the basis of sex and other protected characteristics. This includes subjecting employees to a hostile work environment through severe or pervasive unwelcome sexual conduct.
- California Government Code 12940 prohibits workplace harassment and discrimination based on sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
- SB 1343 requires all California employers with 5 or more employees to provide sexual harassment prevention training every 2 years to supervisors and managers and within 6 months of hire or promotion. At least 2 hours of training are required for supervisors.
Employers who fail to take reasonable steps to prevent and promptly correct sexual harassment can face significant liability. Courts have held organizations financially responsible for workplace harassment, with damages reaching millions in some high-profile cases.
Steps to Prevent Workplace Sexual Harassment
To avoid liability and build a positive workplace culture, California employers should take proactive measures to prevent sexual harassment. Here are some best practices:
Establish a Strong Anti-Harassment Policy
A clearly written anti-harassment policy is the cornerstone of prevention efforts. Your policy should:
- Define prohibited conduct, including harassment, discrimination, and retaliation
- Provide examples of unacceptable verbal, physical, and visual behavior
- State that employees at every level will be subject to disciplinary action for policy violations
- Explain the procedures for reporting sexual harassment and launching investigations
- Assure confidentiality and prohibit retaliation for reporting
- Be regularly updated to reflect changes to the law
Distribute the policy in an employee handbook and ensure all workers review and acknowledge it upon hiring and periodically after. Post the policy prominently in the workplace as an ongoing reminder.
Conduct Ongoing Sexual Harassment Training
Regular training is one of the most effective ways to prevent workplace sexual harassment. California law requires at least 2 hours of training every 2 years for supervisors and managers. The best practice is to train all employees annually. Training should:
- Review company policies, laws, rights, and responsibilities
- Teach employees how to identify inappropriate conduct
- Provide guidance on speaking up as a bystander
- Explain the complaint process and emphasize non-retaliation
- Use real scenarios and case studies relevant to the work environment
- Encourage questions and participation
Consider bringing in external experts to lead interactive anti-harassment training. This shows employees you are serious about creating a harassment-free workplace.
Promote a Culture of Safety and Respect
Fostering an ethical, respectful workplace climate is key to preventing sexual harassment. As a leader, you set the tone. Demonstrate that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated by:
- Modeling appropriate conduct yourself
- Speaking out against harassment and affirming the values of equality
- Listening without judgment and ensuring concerns are addressed
- Following stated policies and applying consistent discipline
Promote diversity, civility, and ethical behavior at all levels to build trust and positivity. Make it clear that derogatory comments, offensive language, and inappropriate jokes will not be accepted.
Encourage Bystander Intervention
Empower employees to speak up when they witness questionable behavior. The power of the masses can stop inappropriate conduct from escalating. Provide guidance like:
- Directly confronting the harasser to express concern
- Reporting the issue to a supervisor or HR
- Publicly calling out the behavior as inappropriate
- Privately supporting the victim
Train managers to intervene when they observe harassment and reinforce that inaction can lead to liability.
Offer Confidential Reporting Options
Ensure employees have clear reporting avenues if harassment issues emerge. Many victims do not file formal complaints out of fear or embarrassment. Provide options like:
- An anonymous tip line or online reporting form
- Designated HR contacts to discuss concerns confidentially
- External harassment hotline administered by a third party
Make it easy to report early so problems can be addressed before they worsen. Strictly prohibit retaliation against those who report in good faith.
Investigate All Complaints Thoroughly
Take every allegation seriously and follow consistent response procedures. Launch prompt, impartial investigations of all harassment complaints. Keep the process confidential to protect victims.
Interview witnesses, review evidence, and track details. Avoid prejudgment. If harassment occurs, apply appropriate discipline per your policy. False accusations made in bad faith should also be addressed through corrective action.
Document every report, investigation, and resolution. This protects the employer if claims arise later.
Be Proactive with New Hires
Set the right tone from day one. Discuss anti-harassment policies and complaint procedures during onboarding. Have new hires acknowledge the policy in writing. Remind managers and supervisors of their duty to proactively identify and resolve any harassing behavior.
By establishing clear expectations upfront, employees gain confidence that harassment prevention is a true priority.
Employer Responsibility for Preventing Sexual Harassment
Under California law, employers can be held liable for sexual harassment committed by supervisors, managers, or co-workers. Employers have a significant role to play in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. They have a responsibility to provide a harassment-free work environment. This is achieved by implementing a strong anti-harassment policy, which should include a sexual harassment policy and a proactive approach to prevent harassment.
Employers should take action immediately when reports of sexual harassment emerge. They should also ensure that they maintain a workplace free of offensive environments and promote equal treatment irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity.
To avoid liability, California employers should implement a multifaceted strategy focused on prevention, including:
- Adopting a strong anti-harassment policy – This clearly defines prohibited conduct and includes reporting procedures. It should be regularly updated and distributed to all employees.
- Conducting anti-harassment training – Frequent, interactive training educates employees on policies, laws, and how to report issues and creates a culture of respect.
- Encouraging reporting – Employees should feel safe coming forward with complaints, which are taken seriously and investigated promptly.
- Taking prompt corrective action – Disciplining harassers and monitoring to ensure the harassment stops.
Let’s explore each of these elements of an effective anti-harassment program in more detail.
The Role of Supervisors and Managers
Supervisors and managers are instrumental in preventing workplace harassment. They should be aware of their role in setting the tone for a respectful, harassment-free workplace. They should also ensure that they build a culture among their employees that doesn’t tolerate any form of harassment. Managers and supervisors have a responsibility to act immediately on reports or incidents of sexual harassment and carry out disciplinary actions when necessary.
Cultivating a Harassment-Free Workplace Culture
While establishing formal policies and procedures is crucial, employers should also focus on fostering an ethical workplace culture grounded in mutual respect and safety.
Here are some strategies for cultivating a strong workplace culture that prevents harassment:
- Hire and promote those who embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion. Seek employees who will uplift these values.
- Encourage healthy communication about consent, boundaries, and unacceptable behavior. Make these regular talking points.
- Be responsive to concerns about workplace climate and morale. Nip issues in the bud before they escalate.
- Reinforce anti-harassment messaging with posters, newsletters, events, and leader speeches.
- Celebrate positive modeling of workplace values. Recognize those who promote respect and dignity.
- Provide ongoing training not just on compliance but also on topics like unconscious bias, allyship, and gender/racial sensitivities.
- Be vigilant about power dynamics. Ensure those in leadership do not abuse their authority or treat certain groups unfairly.
A positive workplace culture makes it far less likely for harassment to take root. Still, employers need concrete systems for reporting and acting on incidents. The most effective strategies combine cultural and structural interventions.
Partnering with an Employment Lawyer
Preventing and addressing workplace sexual harassment can be complex. California employers concerned about their responsibilities should reach out to an employment lawyer.
The team at Malk Law Firm has extensive experience advising clients on sexual harassment prevention compliance. They stay up to date on California laws and best practices so we can guide you in the following:
- Drafting customized anti-harassment policies
- Conducting interactive training tailored to your workforce
- Designing confidential reporting procedures and investigations
- Navigating sexual harassment complaints and lawsuits
- Fostering an ethical, inclusive workplace culture
With diligent effort and expert support, your organization can stop workplace sexual harassment before it happens. Employees and leadership together have the power to create safe, equitable work environments where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. Don’t wait to take action – reach out to Malk Law Firm online at https://www.malklawfirm.com/.