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When are employers liable for workplace harassment?

In California and throughout the United States, workplace harassment is a frequent topic of conversation and source for complaints. Part of this is due to the prevalence of the behavior; part of it is due to employees feeling emboldened to complain when they are confronted with these violations. Growing movements and legal protections designed to give workers the freedom to speak out are undoubtedly positive. Still, employers need to be cognizant of how they can shield themselves from legal claims that can be costly financially and in terms of how they are perceived in the communities they are trying to serve. A key aspect of that is knowing about employer liability for allegations of harassment.

Key points about employer liability with allegations of harassment

There may be a perception that employers are fully liable for harassment in their workplace. That is only true based on the situation. The circumstances and who was committing the harassment are fundamental aspects that will play a role in employer liability. If it is a supervisor who is doing the harassing and the victim was subjected to a negative outcome in the workplace such as being terminated, losing out on a promotion, not being hired, having reduced wages and more, then the employer is liable.

When harassment creates a hostile work environment, the employer will be protected if there was a reasonable attempt to stop the harassment or if the employee did not agree to the attempts on the part of the employer to address the harassment. If it is a non-supervisor or non-employees who are doing the harassment and the employer should have known or already knew about it, then the employer is liable. If, for example, a restaurant worker is consistently harassed by a customer and the employer is unaware of it, then the employer is not deemed liable.

Employers should be cognizant of liability for harassment

It is easy to paint employers as indifferent to harassment in the workplace or as tacitly allowing the behavior through a lack of oversight. Based on employment law, that may be unfair and they might not be liable. Of course, in some cases, the employer does exhibit a lack of vigilance that constitutes a legal violation and leaves them liable. The entire case should be scrutinized to determine where the employer’s liability starts and ends. This is a critical part of creating a law-abiding workplace and formulating a defense if accusations of harassment and other forms of wrongdoing are made.