Sexual harassment, once an ignored phenomenon, is now a major workplace issue, especially in California. Employers who fail to prepare for internal sexual harassment complaints are unnecessarily subjecting themselves to a tremendous legal risk. To mitigate your risk, you are going to need to prepare for such complaints before they are filed, and you are going to need to handle them properly once they do arise.
How the System Works
Both federal and state law prohibits sexual harassment, and both put the onus on the employer to prevent it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission handles federal sexual harassment claims while the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing handles state claims.
A current or former employee, or even an independent contractor, is entitled to file a complaint and trigger an investigation by the authorities. Fines are possible as are civil lawsuits. And in extreme cases, even criminal penalties.
Before a sexual harassment claim ever arises, you should complete the following preparations, among others:
Institute a formal, written company sexual harassment policy that every employee is required to sign.
Establish formal investigation procedures in the event of a complaint.
Amend your employee handbook to establish clear rules prohibiting sexual harassment.
Conduct regular sexual harassment training of your employees, unless you are one of the small minority of companies that is not required to do so.
To accomplish all this, you will need familiarity with California workplace sexual harassment law.
After a Complaint Arises
After a sexual harassment complaint arises, you need to take quick and decisive action:
Listen carefully to the complainant’s story and draft a written report.
Make an effort to segregate the alleged perpetrator and the complainant so that they do not work together, and so that the alleged perpetrator cannot continue any harassment or retaliate against the complainant (a leave of absence might be appropriate in certain cases).
Conduct a thorough investigation. It would be a good idea to retain a neutral third party to conduct the investigation.
Reach reasonable, objective conclusions about the complaint. You are walking a tightrope here – you could be accused of (i) taking the complaint too lightly; (ii) railroading the alleged perpetrator; or (iii) both at the same time.
Notify both parties of the results of your investigation.
Take appropriate disciplinary measures, up to and including termination, if the allegation is true. Even if you conclude that the allegation is unsubstantiated, you should ensure that the complainant and the alleged perpetrator no longer work together – without disadvantaging the complainant in any way, since you could be accused of retaliation that way.
Reevaluate your company’s sexual harassment policy based on what you learned from handling a real-life complaint and make any necessary changes.
We Can Help You Manage Your Legal Risks
The risk to your company of a mishandled sexual harassment complaint are almost impossible to overstate – in a worst-case scenario they could even include corporate bankruptcy. If your company has received an internal sexual harassment complaint, or if you wish to prepare in advance in case such an allegation surfaces in the future, call CKB Vienna today or contact us online to schedule a consultation. We serve clients in Rancho Cucamonga, San Bernardino County, Los Angeles County, Orange County, and Riverside County.