In fall of 2017, women and men across the country started speaking out publicly about their experiences of sexual harassment in the #MeToo movement. This represented a watershed moment in American history, where there was a push towards accountability for people who harass and abuse others. In California, Governor Newsom even signed two bills aimed at combatting workplace harassment.
While there was great hope that the #MeToo movement would change the culture, ending sexual harassment, few changes actually occurred. Across the country, in all types of jobs, women and men are still subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace. Those that report this harassment may find themselves being demoted or even fired.
Although retaliating against workers who report sexual harassment is illegal, it still occurs. If this happens to you, an experienced Orange County wrongful termination lawyer can work with you to help you seek justice. Read on to learn more about the law on sexual harassment — and what you can do if you are being harassed at work.
California Law On Workplace Sexual Harassment
Under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal. There are two types of sexual harassment that may occur:
1. Quid Pro Quo: when a supervisor demands sexual favors for a workplace benefit, such as a better shift or a promotion.
2. Hostile Work Environment: severe, pervasive conduct, which may include unwelcome advances, actions or comments based on the employee’s sex.
To qualify as sexual harassment under California law, the conduct in question must be unwelcome. However, sexual harassment isn’t just committed by bosses or supervisors. An employee may be sexually harassed by coworkers, clients, customers, independent contractors, vendors, or even the owner of the company.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also prohibits sexual harassment. Under this federal law, harassment on the basis of sex may include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or verbal or physical harassment that is sexual in nature.
What To Do If You Are Being Sexually Harassed
If you are experiencing sexual harassment at work, there are a number of steps that you can take to protect yourself and get help for the situation.
First, take notes of what is happening to you. Be specific and detailed, writing down when and where the harassment occurred. This may be useful if you need to file a complaint for sexual harassment.
Second, ask the person who is harassing you to stop — if you feel comfortable doing so. There are situations where it may not be safe for you to confront someone who is harassing you; if this is the case, do not talk directly to your harasser about the issue.
Third, if the harassment does not stop or if you don’t feel comfortable talking to the other person, consult your employee handbook to determine if there is a policy for reporting harassment. If there is, follow that policy. Otherwise, report the wrongful conduct to someone in your company with the power to address it. Depending on the size of the organization, this may be a member of the Human Resources department, a supervisor or manager, or even the owner of the company. Once you have taken this step, it is now on the company to investigate and put an end to illegal sexual harassment.
Fourth, under both California and federal law, you are protected from retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. If you believe that you are facing retaliation of any kind, such as being demoted, having time off requests denied, or being moved to a different location, take notes of these actions.
Fifth, you always have the option to file a complaint with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This process can be complicated and there are specific deadlines for filing these types of complaints (3 years for DFEH complaints and 180 to 300 days for an EEOC complaint). You will likely want to consult with an Orange County wrongful termination lawyer before filing a DFEH or EEOC complaint. Your attorney can give you an overview of your rights and options as well as help you determine the best course of action for your case.
Finally, the DFEH or EEOC will either decide to prosecute the case on your behalf or will issue a write to sue letter. This will allow you to file a lawsuit against your employer for sexual harassment. Importantly, you cannot file a lawsuit for a sexual harassment claim without first filing a complaint with the DFEH or EEOC.
Your Rights If You Were Terminated For Reporting Sexual Harassment
Both FEHA and federal law prohibit retaliation against employees who:
• Oppose sexual harassment;
• File a complaint about sexual harassment; or
• Testify or assist in a complaint about sexual harassment.
These are forms of protected activity. There are other kinds of protected activity that may apply in different situations. For example, if you communicate with the DFEH or EEOC about harassment, that may be considered a protected activity. An Orange County wrongful termination lawyer can talk to you about whether your specific situation involves protected activity.
Retaliation can take many forms — including termination. If you are fired after reporting sexual harassment, you may be able to file a lawsuit against your employer for wrongful termination or retaliation.
A termination is usually not directly linked to an employee engaging in protected activity (i.e., the report is made and then the employer fires the employee specifically for complaining). Instead, the employer, supervisor or another person may find or create an excuse to fire an employee who reports sexual harassment.
Consider a situation where a woman experiences sexual harassment at work; her supervisor regularly mades lewd comments to her and has even touched her inappropriately. She reports it to human resources, and the supervisor is disciplined. Her supervisor then begins to fabricate issues with her work, leading to a negative performance review. She is then fired. In this situation, this woman may have been a victim of wrongful termination, because she was retaliated against for reporting sexual harassment.
Because these cases can be tricky to prove, it is important to consult with a skilled Orange County wrongful termination lawyer who can examine the facts of the case and perform an investigation to demonstrate that a firing was linked to protected activity.
If you are terminated based on protected activity, you can file a complaint with either the DFEH or the EEOC. This is best done with the assistance of an attorney, who can make sure that your case is presented in the best way possible and that you comply with all rules and deadlines. From there, the complaint will either be handled directly by the DFEH or EEOC, or you will be permitted to file a lawsuit against your employer for wrongful termination.
Sexual harassment is illegal — and so is retaliating against employees who report it. Yet too often, employees who speak out about wrongful conduct are punished for doing so. If you have been fired for reporting sexual harassment, you may be able to file a complaint and/or a lawsuit against your employer with the help of an Orange County wrongful termination lawyer.
At Odell Law, we represent employees who have suffered all types of injustice, from discrimination and harassment to retaliation and wrongful termination. We offer free phone consultations for all prospective clients. To learn more, call us at 949-833-7106 or email us today.