You don’t need to put up with a hostile working environment

Today’s question comes from Geraldine T. in Berkeley:

“After reading your article on unlawful harassment two weeks ago, I have a couple of questions. I work in a warehouse and I don’t want to be a “narc,” but I don’t think I should have to put up with the offensive sexual type behavior going on here. One female worker and the male warehouse foreman have known each other for years and they say all sorts of sexual stuff to each other and laugh, all the time. For example, the foreman might say “where do you want me to stack these poles,” and the female worker might answer, “you know where you can put that pole baby, anytime, just don’t let your girl find out.” I don’t need, or want, to hear this crap at work. I am fairly religious and it makes me so uncomfortable that some days I don’t even want to go to work. Whenever I say anything like “I don’t need to hear that kind of talk,” they look at me with disgust and tell me to mind my own business. With Christmas coming, I need this job to buy gifts for my kids and pay the rent. What can I do?”

Geraldine, you shouldn’t have to choose between a workplace free of sexual harassment and your job. This happens all too often. The type of unlawful behavior you describe is known as “hostile environment” sexual harassment and can involve various forms of verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature that have either the purpose or effect of creating a hostile or offensive working environment. The conduct need not be directed towards you — your awareness and objection is enough. As such, the foreman would be considered to be harassing you, but not his female friend because she participates in the conduct and therefore does not appear to find the conduct “unwanted.”

A “hostile environment” case requires proof of three elements: (1) an employee subjected to unwanted conduct; (2) such conduct being based on sex; and (3) harassment “so severe or pervasive” as to “alter the conditions of the victim’s employment.” In cases like yours where there has been no direct impact on your work assignments or conditions, the law would require a “commensurately higher showing that the sexually harassing conduct was pervasive and destructive of the working environment”; that is, it has to be so bad that a reasonable person in your position would find it intolerable and detrimental to their working environment.

To hold an employer accountable, the employer must have had actual or constructive knowledge of the conduct and have failed to remedy it. Examples of actual knowledge include personal observation or another employee’s report. Constructive notice is found when the conduct is so prevalent that a reasonably aware employer would know about it. In cases like yours where a supervisor is involved in the conduct, the supervisor’s knowledge is imputed to the employer.

I suggest that you look at your employee handbook to see if they have a process for reporting such conduct and follow that process. Don’t worry if it requires you to bring it up with your direct manager; you can skip that. I always suggest that a person in your situation file a WRITTEN complaint with their manager’s manager and human resources or, If there is no human resources department, then with the owner. Once in receipt of your complaint, the company is legally obligated to conduct a reasonable, good faith investigation and take “prompt and sufficient remedial measures” to put an end to the harassment. You may also file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing at their website: dfeh.ca.gov.

Many people in your situation choose to make anonymous complaints because they are afraid of retaliation. However, there are good reasons not to complain anonymously, though. First, the law prohibits retaliation, including comments, altered job assignments, bogus discipline, or termination, against an employee who has made a good-faith complaint. Second, since your foreman and his friend already know your feelings towards their conduct, they will probably guess who reported them and possibly take actions against you, which the company can claim not to constitute retaliation because the complainant did not reveal their identity. As such, it is best to let them know up front.

Finally, I suggest that you speak to an Employment Trial Lawyer, who usually works on a contingency (taking a percentage of any recovery), for further advice. My firm believes in giving the employer an opportunity to “do the right thing” and avoid a lawsuit if possible, so our employment law team often counsels employees in effectively communicating with their employer to obtain a harassment-free workplace. If these efforts fail, the employer’s insufficient response can serve to strengthen a later lawsuit.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm, P.C. Email questions and topics for future articles to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

We serve clients across the San Francisco Bay Area and California from our offices in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Our work is no recovery, no fee or also referred to as contingency-based. That means we collect no fee unless we obtain money for your damages and injuries.

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