Most employees – particularly those in management positions – understand that sexual harassment is prohibited behavior in the workplace. What many people don’t realize is that harassing a fellow employee anywhere at any time is also prohibited under California law.
That means if a colleague, boss or someone who reports to you makes unwanted sexual advances or remarks when you run into them at the gym or the grocery store, they can’t excuse their behavior by saying, “Hey, we’re not at work.” Under the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), harassment that is at-all work related may be actionable. As a result, if one of your colleagues sees you at the movies, they can’t make discriminatory comments any more than they could if you had bumped into them at work.
Employers’ obligations under the law
California’s FEHA requires employers to investigate and address any employment-related complaint about discrimination or harassment that’s reported to them. While businesses can’t be expected to control their employees’ behavior in their private life, they can help prevent harassment outside of work by ensuring that all employees know that the same rules about harassment apply regardless of where they are. They can further minimize the risk of potentially unlawful behavior by taking decisive action when it occurs. Such effort can send a strong message to everyone that inappropriate conduct won’t be tolerated.
Hostile work environment concerns
The reason employers have an obligation to address harassment that occurs outside of work is that it can create a hostile work environment for the victim of the harassment. It can cause them to feel uncomfortable, at the very least, and possibly unsafe around their harasser. It can also affect people’s jobs and even their career trajectory. Harassers may avoid their victim, even if it means not giving them important opportunities. Victims may pass up an opportunity for promotion if it means working for their harasser.
It’s critical that employees understand their right to be free from harassment by co-workers and managers. They also need to know they can report the harassment and expect to have it investigated and appropriately handled. Similarly, no employee should suffer retaliation for reporting inappropriate behavior.
If you haven’t been able to resolve an issue of harassment with your employer or they’ve taken steps to retaliate against you, it may be time to seek legal guidance to protect your rights and your access to career-related opportunities down the road.