The past few years have forced Americans into a reckoning with sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace. As women, and some men, have come forward with their tales of harassment and assault in work-related settings, many employers have responded by tightening their policies on sexual harassment, and in some high-profile cases, by terminating employees who ran afoul of these policies.
Are employers liable for sexual harassment committed by their employees against other employees? In some cases yes.
Sexual harassment in the workplace
Alaska and federal law have long prohibited sexual harassment in the workplace. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines unlawful harassment as unwelcome conduct based on sex and other protected categories. The EEOC further notes that there are two main categories of sexual harassment that can lead to liability. The first is sometimes known as quid pro quo harassment, in which an employee must endure the unwelcome behavior as a condition of keeping their job. The second involves harassment that is so severe and pervasive that it creates a hostile work environment.
Employers are not always held liable when one employee sexually harasses another. However, employers can almost always be held liable for sexual harassment committed by supervisors once it has resulted in a negative employment action, such as wrongful termination, demotion or failure to promote.
The best way for employers to avoid liability for sexual harassment is, of course, to prevent it from happening in the first place by instituting and enforcing strong policies against it. Once a claim of harassment has been filed, employers can defend themselves from liability by proving that they knew about the harassment and took reasonable steps to stop and correct it, or that the harassed employee failed to take advantage of the employer’s prevention and correction policies.
Defending against these claims can be difficult. It can do great damage to a company if it gets a reputation for protecting harassers while fighting employees who have been the victims of harassment. Attorneys with experience in employer defense can help employers understand their legal options.