When an established company is hit with a long string of gender discrimination and harassment lawsuits by current and former female employees, and settles the cases for a substantial sum, it is time for the culture of the company to be studied, purged and re-formulated into an ethical business operation. The online real estate agency, Zillow, has been on the receiving end of numerous sexual harassment lawsuits filed in 2014, apparently in federal courts located in California. The complaints generally all claimed that there was an environment of sexual harassment of women employees and agents in the company's Irvine sales office.
Some employers have not learned that they must take sexual harassment claims by employees seriously. In California and all other states, an employer must immediately see to it that there is no possibility of the charges being repeated, even if that means transferring the accused supervisor to another department or location. The employing company must also must quickly make a thorough and objective investigation to determine whether sexual harassment did occur.
Sexual harassment of an employee is prohibited by federal and state anti-discrimination laws. It can include unwelcome sexual advances, trying to trade job enhancement or promotions for sex or the creation of a hostile environment that makes the employee's job generally unbearable. Sexual harassment in California and all other states will not exist by mere teasing or offhand comments made in isolated instances; instead, the violation requires a set pattern of pervasive taunting, harassing, insulting or other repetitive hostile behavior so as to create an intolerable and offensive environment for the victim .
A recent scandal at the University of California-Berkeley may have exposed the issue of sexual harassment in academia, especially in the sciences, for many people. An astronomy professor was not fired after it came to light that he routinely harassed and sexually assaulted female students for years. He did eventually resign, but many observers criticized UC Berkeley’s administration for not doing more than issuing him a warning.
One does not have to work in an office, store, warehouse, factory or other traditional workplace to be subject to sexual harassment. Domestic workers may have a harder time fending off harassment, because there may be nobody besides the harasser to report the behavior to.
For most people being victimized by sexual harassment at work, the prospect of suing their employer can seem frightening and difficult. While litigation might eventually be necessary, much of the time the problem can be solved without things going so far. Indeed, many employers are eager to stop sexual harassers among their executives and managers, because they fear potential litigation.
A common defense to workplace sexual harassment claims is consent. In other words, an accused supervisor may say that the plaintiff welcomed his or her sexual comments or advances, or that the two parties engaged in a sexual relationship. Whether the defendant’s conduct was welcome to the plaintiff or not may become a key point of any sexual harassment lawsuit.
Late in May, we discussed allegations that Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson sexually harassed an employee in the city manager’s office in 2013 and 2014. Such accusations are now expanding beyond Johnson to others in City Hall, with two new sexual harassment suits being filed in two days. One of the suits is against Vice Mayor Allen Warren.
Despite increased attention and action against sexual harassment in recent years, it remains a serious problem in many workplaces. Many observers see systemic sexual harassment as a form of control, an attempt by management to prevent women from advancing to workplace equality.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson says that an internal investigation has vindicated him from accusations by a city employee that he sexually harassed her several times from late 2013 to mid-2014. The accuser, who recently has filed suit, says she was forced to turn down a promising new job to avoid being around Johnson.