by Cady Sartorius
Sexual harassment is illegal; it violates California state law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Still, at least one out of four women report having experienced workplace sexual harassment. And it can have significant, lasting physical, emotional, and mental health effects: anxiety, depression, headaches, fatigue, withdrawal, weight loss and gain, insomnia, anger, and even post-traumatic stress. Workplace sexual harassment can also be a barrier to equal opportunity, cause economic losses, make workplaces unsafe, and interfere with personal relationships.
It is the employer’s job to ensure a harassment-free workplace, and there are laws to help them combat this societal epidemic. But as an employee, you can also suggest some of the following measures to your employer to help reduce the risk that sexual harassment will occur in your workplace.
In California, the law requires public employers to provide sexual harassment training. And private employers with more than 50 employees must provide two hours of mandatory sexual harassment training to all supervisors within 6 months of becoming a supervisor, and at least once every two years. However, in line with the maxim that you can never have too much of a good thing, you can suggest to your employer that they make it a part of the workplace culture to repeat sexual harassment training on an annual basis. As a bonus, they can have separate training for supervisors and H.R. staff on how to handle sexual harassment complaints.
Also, look in your employee handbook—is there a section on sexual harassment? Urge your employer to adopt a clear sexual harassment policy. The policy should also include instructions on how an employee can lodge a sexual harassment complaint, and make it clear that the employer will not retaliate against an employee for brining sexual harassment to their attention.
California law also requires that employers distribute the Department of Fair Employment and Housing’s information sheet on sexual harassment to all employees.
If faced with resistance, remind your employer of the prevalence of sexual harassment in the average workplace, and point out that it could cost them money in terms of employee morale and productivity, and in lawsuits if they do not act to prevent or stop harassment.
If the prevention measures fail, what should you do if you feel you are a target of sexual harassment? First, tell the harasser to STOP! Speak up and discourage offenders by telling them that their behavior is not only inacceptable, but illegal.
Second, keep a journal or log of all harassing behavior and who witnessed it. Do not delete any text messages or emails that made you feel uncomfortable.
Third, report the behavior to H.R. or up the chain of command early on (preferably in written form), then follow-up on the complaints. As much as 90% of women never report harassment out of embarrassment, fear of losing their job, or a belief that the employer cannot or will not do anything to stop it. So the pervasiveness continues. The Equal Rights Advocates have published a sample of what an internal complaint letter could look like.
Finally, if the harassment continues or you suspect you got fired because you brought the harassment to a supervisor’s attention, do not wait to get in touch with an experienced lawyer who can help you figure out the appropriate next steps. The California Civil Rights Law Group’s attorneys can help you protect your rights and send a message to employers that any form of harassment is not okay. Everyone has a right to a workplace free from sexual harassment.
Editor’s Note: The California Civil Rights Law Group is a Bay Area law firm dedicated to fighting for women to feel safe at work and to be treated as equals. Sexual harassment is not a thing of the past even in cities as diverse as Oakland, San Francisco, or Berkeley. It persists in California’s workforce whether you work at a big company or a small mom-and-pop shop. And all forms of sexual harassment should be taken seriously, as it can be devastating, traumatic and destructive. If you want to share your story with us, our attorneys are here to listen. If you want to learn more about your rights, call us to set up a case evaluation in San Francisco Bay Area, Oakland or Marin.