All employees deserve to earn a living free from offensive and unwelcome sexual behavior. In California, employers have a legal duty to protect their employees from harassment based on sex, before and after it happens. Employers who don’t invest time in sexual harassment education and investigation can be held legally responsible for misconduct on their watch.

In this article, we’ll discuss the employer responsibilities for preventing harassment in the workplace required by California law. If you’ve experienced sexual harassment at work, it’s best to seek the advice of a legal professional for specific questions about your case. 

What Laws Protect Against Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Workplace sexual harassment is banned under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Generally, the law defines sexual harassment as unwanted sexual conduct in the workplace that:

  • Is severe or pervasive enough to interfere with an employee’s job, or
  • Is offered as a condition for receiving employment benefits.

In California, illegal harassment based on sex includes sexual harassment, gender-based harassment, and harassment based on pregnancy or childbirth. Inappropriate behavior also doesn’t have to be motivated by sexual desire to count as illegal sexual harassment.

California law protects all types of workers from sexual harassment, including:

  • Current employees, 
  • Job applicants,
  • Independent contractors,
  • Unpaid interns, and
  • Volunteers.

We often think of sexual harassment as something that happens to a female employee at the hands of a male coworker. However, sexual harassment can be perpetrated by any person of any gender. Illegal harassing behavior can also come from people in a workplace who aren’t employees, such as clients, customers, vendors, or independent contractors.

What California Law Says About Employer Responsibilities for Preventing Harassment in The Workplace

As part of California’s anti-harassment protections, employers are legally obligated to take the initiative to combat sexual misconduct in the workplace. 

Under California law, employers have an affirmative duty to take certain reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment. These minimum precautions include:

  • Creating a written employer sexual harassment policy,
  • Hanging informational posters about harassment in the workplace,
  • Distributing information about legal remedies for sexual harassment, and
  • Establishing a process for employees to report sexual harassment.

All California employers have a responsibility to take these steps to educate and inform employees about their right to work free from harassment.

For employers with five or more employees, additional sexual harassment training is required. Under California law, employers are responsible for holding interactive sexual harassment and abuse prevention training for their employees. Employees in supervisory roles—like managers and department heads—must have at least two hours of anti-harassment training. Nonsupervisory employees are required to have one hour of interactive training that covers:

  • How to recognize unlawful sexual harassment,
  • What steps to take in response to harassing behavior, 
  • How to report an incident of harassment,
  • An employer’s obligation to investigate harassment, and
  • The legal options available for victims of harassment. 

All employees must receive sexual harassment training from a qualified instructor at least once every two years. However, employers are allowed and encouraged to hold additional training opportunities even more frequently than this.

What California Law Says About Employer Responsibilities for Handling Sexual Harassment

When an incident of sexual harassment happens, California law requires employers to take certain steps to address it. 

Prompt and Thorough Investigation 

Employers must investigate all complaints of harassment as soon as they learn about them. When someone reports they’ve been sexually harassed, it’s an employer’s duty to conduct as detailed and impartial an investigation into the matter as possible. HR or an external investigator can lead an investigation. If someone from HR is a subject or witness in the complaint, it’s essential to contact an independent investigator to protect the inquiry’s credibility.

Remedial Action

If the investigation confirms the harassment allegations, the employer is expected to take appropriate action to remedy the situation. Corrective action could include suspending, transferring, and even terminating the employee responsible for the harassment.

No Retaliation

It’s illegal to punish any employee for reporting sexual harassment or participating in a harassment investigation. Retaliation can take the form of demotion, pay cuts, firing, and additional harassment. Employers are responsible for informing employees about their legal protections against retaliation. If you experience employer backlash after reporting sexual harassment, get in touch with an attorney at Boucher LLP immediately. 

Can I Sue My Employer for Sexual Harassment?

California employees may be able to hold an employer legally liable in certain cases of workplace sexual harassment. Employers can face legal penalties when:

  • The organization was the perpetrator of the harassment, 
  • Sexual misconduct happened at the hands of a supervisor, or
  • The employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take appropriate action to address it.

If you experienced one of these situations, it’s best to contact an employment lawyer. Our attorneys can help you understand your rights and options for legal action to hold your employer responsible. 

Generally, employees who want to bring a civil lawsuit in court must first file an administrative complaint with the California Civil Rights Department and request a right-to-sue notice. With the help of an attorney, victims of workplace sexual harassment can be eligible to receive compensation for the violation of their rights. Potential forms of recovery can include back pay, job reinstatement, damages for emotional distress, attorney fees, and even punitive damages. 

Don’t Wait to Get the Help You Deserve

Employees who suffer sexual harassment often feel intimidated and isolated. The thought of standing up to a harasser alone can seem impossible. That’s why employers play such an important role in protecting the work environment from illegal harassment—addressing misconduct claims when they arise. However, if an employer fails to act according to their duty, employees don’t have to give up hope. 

At Boucher LLP, we understand how disempowering it can be to face sexual harassment at work. As legal professionals, we’ve made it our mission to help individuals suffering mistreatment and abuse stand up and exercise their rights as employees under the law. Our advocates have decades of combined experience helping employees who are the firm’s clients navigate the complexity of federal, state, and local law to hold perpetrators of harassment accountable for their wrongdoing. To learn more about how we might be able to help you, contact our office.