How Companies Can Be Held Liable for Workplace Harassment by Coworkers or Superiors
Workplace harassment is a distressing and unfortunately common issue that many employees face at some point in their careers. Whether you're experiencing harassment by a coworker or a superior, it's essential to understand that you have rights and options.
If you’re dealing with harassment at work, you’re probably wondering whether your employer can be held liable for your coworker's or superior’s illegal behavior.
California law follows the rule of vicarious liability, which allows victims of harassment to hold their company responsible for the behavior of coworkers or superiors. Your employer holds certain legal duties – one of those duties is to protect their employees from illegal harassment. That means having a proper reporting structure in place, taking harassment claims seriously, investigating those claims, protecting employees from retaliation, and taking corrective action.
If your employer fails to shield you from abusive behavior or makes it worse by creating a toxic work environment, you can file a legal claim to get relief. A harassment claim can be brought against the employer and against the harasser, too. If your case is successful, you can recover compensation for any damages you’ve suffered as a result.
In a workplace harassment case, you could receive compensation to cover your lost wages (caused by demotions or missing work days), out-of-pocket expenses related to the harassment (such as therapy bills), and even your mental pain and emotional suffering – because this type of illegal behavior takes a heavy toll. An experienced harassment lawyer can help you negotiate for the maximum possible settlement amount or present your case to a jury.What Behavior Is Considered Harassment in the Workplace?
Workplace harassment typically involves any unwelcome behavior, comments, or actions directed towards one employee or a group of employees based on a protected characteristic.
Under California law, these “protected characteristics” cover race, ancestry, national origin, religion, age, disability, sex, pregnancy, gender, or sexual orientation.
- Verbal harassment may include offensive jokes, slurs, name-calling, or comments on the basis of a disability, age, pregnancy, sex, or another protected characteristic.
- Physical harassment can involve inappropriate physical contact, unwanted touching, physical intimidation, or threats of contact or touching.
- Sexual harassment covers unwanted advances, requests for sexual favors, as well as comments about a person’s gender or sexual orientation.
- Cyberbullying is a form of modern harassment that can happen online through emails, social media, or other electronic communication methods.
- Retaliation can occur when a company takes negative actions against an employee who has reported harassment, making the work environment even more hostile.
You may experience harassment from a supervisor, manager, coworker, or even a non-employee, such as a client or customer who comes to your workplace.Is an Employer Liable for Harassment by Supervisors?
Supervisors carry more power and responsibility in the workplace, which is why they’re held to a higher standard and why the company as a whole could be held accountable for their behavior.
Vicarious liability means that an employer can be held legally responsible for the actions of their employees when those actions occur in the workplace or related to work.
In California, the law holds that companies are strictly liable for a harasser’s actions if the harasser is a supervisor or manager in a position of power, even if the person is not your supervisor or manager.
If you're filing a claim for sexual harassment or another form of harassment by a manager or supervisor, then strict liability is on your side. Essentially, in a strict liability case, your company is automatically liable for the harassing acts of its supervisors. It doesn’t matter if the company later claims that it did not know about the supervisor’s harassing acts or claims that it provided sexual harassment training to employees.What Is Vicarious Liability for Harassment by a Non-Supervisor?
Can the employer be liable if you’re harassed by a coworker? You may be receiving unwanted comments from someone in a similar position to you, in a different department, or even a junior. They don’t have the power to make decisions about your employment, but the harassment is just as disturbing.
In these situations, the rules in California are slightly different. You may still be able to hold your company liable for the actions of non-supervisor employees. To be successful, you must be able to show negligence. In other words:
- Your employer knew or should have known about the harassment,
- Your employer failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action,
- The harassment created a hostile work environment for you, and
- Your employer took no steps to effectively remedy the situation.
In many cases, before you can file a lawsuit in Superior Court of California, you must use the appropriate channels to try to report harassment so that your employer has the opportunity to take corrective action.
However, if your employer has no reporting procedures, dismisses any claims you bring up, fails to take any action, or retaliates against you, then they could be liable for the harassment.
An experienced employment lawyer can help you put together the strongest evidence for your case – not just to prove that you suffered harassment, but to maximize your settlement or recovery at jury trial. If your company behaved especially badly, you could even receive punitive damages to punish them.When Might an Employer Not Be Found Liable for Harassment?
Every case is unique. Depending on the circumstances, your employer may avoid liability if:
- Your employer genuinely had no knowledge of the harassment and no reason to know about it, especially if the harasser is not your supervisor. This underscores the importance of promptly reporting any harassment you experience.
- Your employer can demonstrate that they took immediate and effective action to stop the harassment as soon as they became aware of it.
- The harassment is not related to a “protected characteristic.” For example, a manager who uses profane language on one occasion or a co-worker that insults your work ethic or performance may not expose the employer to liability for harassment.
Workplace harassment is a deeply troubling experience that no one should have to endure. Remember that employers can be held liable for harassment in certain circumstances, particularly when the harassment comes from a supervisor, results in a hostile work environment, or leaves you with tangible negative consequences. The person who is harassing you can also be named as a defendant in a lawsuit and be held personally liable.
If you’ve experienced workplace harassment, consult with an experienced employment lawyer as soon as possible. An attorney can give you legal guidance, help you understand your rights, and assist you in pursuing a claim in court against your employer and others responsible if necessary. When you work with a lawyer to put together a strong case with evidence to back it up, you can find witnesses and documents that will support your case and fight back against your employer’s potential defenses, which will lead to a better outcome in court. A skilled trial lawyer will assess the specific facts of your case and provide tailored advice to help you make informed decisions about the best course of action to protect your rights and seek justice.
Contact us now at Yash Law Group for a free consultation about your case.