California Manager-Employee Sexual Harassment Lawyer

Sexual Harassment by a Manager: What You Should Know

Federal, state, and local laws protect Americans against discrimination in the workplace and provide a structure for legal recourse if discrimination occurs. These laws treat sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination. They also protect American workers against retaliation when they complain of sexual harassment. In many workplaces, companies also have policies regarding sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination, with specific guidelines for filing grievances when harassment has occurred.

Unfortunately, laws and company policies prohibiting sexual harassment do not always prevent that behavior from occurring in workplaces. But those laws and policies—especially California state laws—constitute a powerful set of tools for stopping the behavior and enforcing consequences when it doesn’t stop. In effect, when sexual harassment happens in a workplace, someone broke a law. Sometimes, a crime even occurred.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Under California law, for a behavior to constitute sexual harassment, it must generally prove sexual in nature, unwelcome, and severe or pervasive. A court will evaluate a situation based on these guidelines using the “reasonable person” standard, which relies on evaluating how most reasonable people would react in a given situation.

What Is Positional Authority?

Oftentimes, people in “positional authority” perpetrate sexual harassment. These people can work as managers, supervisors, third party contractors, or anyone else in the workplace who, because of their position, has authority over another person’s job responsibilities and continued employment.

When applied to sexual harassment scenarios, the behavior and demands of a person with positional authority often carry a threat of adverse work consequences. For example, a boss with positional authority who asks a subordinate out on a date runs the great risk of a sexual harassment accusation, because the subordinate may reasonably fear that saying no will carry negative work consequences. As a consequence, people with positional authority must exercise extra care to conduct themselves beyond reproach.

What Are the Steps for Responding to Sexual Harassment by a Manager?

Many people feel that their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace is unique, and wonder if the situation is extreme enough to say anything. It is a natural tendency to wonder if we are overreacting, if we misunderstood something, or if we are too sensitive. These reactions have shamed people into silence, and prevented them from filing complaints and lawsuits when they have suffered the effects of a hostile work environment or quid pro quo harassment.

Instead of trying to overcome these fears alone, victims of sexual harassment can take an effective first step in combating sexual harassment by a person with position authority by speaking to an experienced California sexual harassment attorney.

Meetings with attorneys are confidential, and an attorney who is well-versed in employment law can help a victim separate fact from fear.

Before meeting with an attorney, the victim should try to gather as much evidence as possible of the suspected harassment, whether in the form of notes or emails or text messages. After hearing the victim’s story and reviewing any available evidence, an attorney can advise the victim as to the next steps, which might include:

  • Reporting an incident to the police, if the attorney believes a crime was committed against the victim.
  • Pursuing a complaint through the employer’s internal reporting system, which may involve meeting with the human resources manager if the employer has one, or taking concerns directly to someone in management. Of course, if a person with positional authority is the harasser, this might get complicated, consult an attorney first.
  • Filing a complaint with a government agency tasked with enforcing anti-discrimination laws. These complaints typically trigger an investigation of the employer, so the attorney can advise when and whether filing such a complaint will serve the victim’s best interest.
  • Filing a legal action for damages and/or injunctive relief. The law may entitle a victim to compensation for the injuries caused by sexual harassment, and may also confer the right to demand that the employer take specific actions to remedy the harassment.

These are just a few potential avenues a victim of harassment by a manager can discuss with an experienced sexual harassment attorney. The sooner the victim meets with an attorney after suspected harassment occurs, the better.

Proving Sexual Harassment

California courts evaluate the three standards mentioned above—harassment that is sexual in nature, unwelcome, and severe or pervasive—using the reasonable person standard. Victims should take notes about the incidents, describing how they felt and who received the incident reports. This documentation can help establish that a reasonable person would feel harassed in this work environment.

In addition, managers, having positional authority, are responsible for their own behavior as well as for the conduct of those in the workplace. A manager under this definition does not have to directly supervise the victim. If the person in positional authority has any authority over a person’s ability to make a living, they can abuse that power.

We expect that people in positions of authority both provide a workplace free from hostile and abusive behavior, and that they will not engage in illegal, hostile, or abusive acts toward others. When employees are forced into a hostile or dangerous workplace, or are regularly victimized by discrimination of a sexual nature, they are injured, and that injury is illegal.

Those physical or emotional injuries can prove pervasive. This injury can hurt the ability of a person to work and engage in normal social relationships with others. Federal and state laws, and workplace policies and procedures, forbid sexual harassment, and provide legal redress and protection from retaliation when it occurs. Navigating this reporting system is best done with experienced help. The assistance of an attorney is especially important when facing off against a system in which others hold a great deal of positional authority, and victims are seen as powerless.