Sexual harassment is a serious problem in the workplace; employees of all gender and sexual identities face unlawful harassment on a daily basis at work. While recent social movements such as the #MeToo movement have brought harassment issues into the spotlight, experiences of sexual harassment at work remain all too common and there is much work to be done in preventing harassment and addressing harassment when it does occur. Sexual harassment at work negatively impacts everybody, from the target of the harassment to employer, and drags on the atmosphere of the workplace. In order to facility a productive and safe workplace, and in order to comply with legal standards, it is vital to continue to work to prevent unlawful sexual harassment that occurs in the workplace. In this article we review forms of sexual harassment and go over steps that employers can take to promote a harassment-free work environment.

Both federal law and California employment law prohibit workplace sexual harassment.

Generally, sexual harassment includes verbal or physical conduct that is sexual in nature and is motivated by an employee’s sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Anyone, regardless of sex or gender, can be the victim of unwanted harassment, and anyone, regardless of sex or gender, can perpetrate sexual harassment. Harassment can be verbal, written in the form of emails or text messages, include physical contact, or conducted through a third party, and can also occur at work or outside of work.

There are two main forms of prohibited sexual harassment at work: hostile work environment harassment, and quid pro quo harassment.

Hostile work environment harassment refers to sexual harassment that is severe or pervasive, so as to create a hostile workplace and interfere with an employee’s work. Harassment is considered severe if it is egregious to the point that one occurrence of the harassing behavior makes the environment hostile. Harassment is considered pervasive if it occurs repeatedly, so as to create a hostile workplace environment. Harassing conduct may include unwanted sexual advances, sexual comments, lewd and offensive comments, sexual assault, physical conduct of a sexual nature, innuendos, and more.

Quid Pro Quo sexual harassment occurs when participation in a sexual behavior is represented as a condition of employment. For example, a supervisor telling you that you will receive a promotion if you go on a date with them, or a manager telling you that they will hire you in exchange for a sexual favor, are both considered illegal quid pro quo harassment.

Both federal and California law hold the employer responsible for facilitating a workplace that is free from harassment. Under the law, employers are required to take steps to prevent harassment from occurring, and to take the appropriate steps to address harassment if it does occur at their jobsite.

It is vital that employers, managers, and human resources take necessary steps to proactively prevent harassment. Below we describe some prevention strategies that employers can take to diminish the potential for sexual harassment at work.

Make sexual harassment prevention a priority: Employers should explicitly spell out their anti-harassment policy in a company handbook or other company materials, and emphasize a zero-tolerance policy for harassment. Companies must be proactive about educating their staff at all levels about unlawful sexual harassment, and about the companies’ policies for addressing harassment at work.

Ensure clear understanding of sexual harassment: It is important the employees, from senior management to entry level staff members have a solid grasp of what constitutes hostile work environment sexual harassment and quid pro quo sexual harassment under federal and state law. They should understand their rights, and have a firm understanding of what to do if they experience or witness harassment at work.

Keep sexual harassment prevention training programs positive and minimize legal jargon: In order to ensure that employees have a clear understanding of sexual harassment, sexual harassment trainings and materials are accessible and comprehensible to employees. Materials and training sessions which are overly boring, complex, accusatory, or negative may make trainings less effective. Trainings will be most effective if they are interactive, focus on positive messaging, and encourage employees to collaborate in creating a respectful and safe work environment. It is important to create a workplace free of sexual harassment to facilitate a healthy work culture, not just because it is important to comply with the law.

Engage employees in shaping a healthy institutional culture: Workplace culture is the result of collaboration between everyone who makes up the workplace. While management and supervisory staff are ultimately responsible, they do well to engage their staff in shaping a workplace free of harassment. Trusted employees may be stewards of harassment prevention and employees may be given the opportunity to be trained as active bystanders who can interrupt and report harassment. Management should look to their staff for input on improving anti-harassment materials, trainings, and responses.

Act swiftly on reports of harassment: Even if an employer takes proactive steps to limit harassment, harassment may still occur. It is key that the employer create a safe work environment where employees feel comfortable coming forward, and know that their sexual harassment complaints will be taken seriously. Coming forward as an employee can be difficult; employers should take steps to ensure that employees know how to report harassment, who to report it to, and feel comfortable reporting the harassment without fear of retaliation. It is essential that employers respond promptly and thoroughly to any reports of harassment, and that those reporting harassment are heard and supported. Employers should conduct timely investigations, and impose appropriate disciplinary action on harassers. If employers fail to respond appropriately to employee reports of harassment, they open themselves up to further legal liability.

Employers are responsible for creating a work environment free of sexual harassment. Your employer can be held accountable for sexual harassment you experience at work if you are being harassed by a supervisor or manager. Your employer can also be held accountable for failing to prevent sexual harassment if you make your employer aware of harassment by a coworker, customer, or client, and they do not appropriately respond to your harassment complaint.

Navruz Avloni is an experienced employment attorney dedicated to holding accountable those employers that fail to provide a harassment-free workplace. If you are experiencing harassment in the workplace or looking for a sexual harassment lawyer, reach out to Avloni Law for a free consultation.