Think that sexual harassment litigation has left the spotlight? Think again. Late last week a Los Angeles jury awarded two plaintiffs one of the largest damages awards in recent history: $464.6 million dollars ($440 million of which was punitive damages).
Two Southern California Edison employees were found to have been forced out of their jobs after complaining about repeated sexual and racial harassment – directed at themselves and other coworkers – at an Edison South Bay office where they worked. Both employees claim within a relatively short period of time after lodging their complaints they experienced retaliatory conduct (e.g., retaliatory complaints against their own behavior and threats of retaliation linked to the reporting). Painted as an organization that simply did not take the complaints seriously (e.g., pretending the problem was limited to a few bad actors and ignoring a culture where harassment and discriminatory conduct was normalized), Edison officials say they will seek a new trial and attempt to overturn the verdict.
This latest verdict follows a trend in employment cases where jury verdicts continue to inch toward unprecedented levels. It also stands as a stark reminder that employers should continue to take seriously complaints of harassment (based on sex or any protected classification) in the workplace.
California employers have an affirmative duty to “take reasonable steps to prevent and correct wrongful (harassing, discriminatory, retaliatory) behavior in the workplace.[i] This includes:
- Providing a clear and easy to understand anti-harassment, discrimination and retaliation policy.
- Modeling – from the top down – appropriate workplace behavior.
- Conducting prompt, thorough and fair investigations.
- Following through with prompt and fair remedial action.
It is also important to remember the California employer’s duty to prevent sexual harassment includes training all employees on preventing sexual harassment and abusive conduct in the workplace. Employers with five or more employees must provide:
- One hour of interactive training and education on sexual harassment to all non-supervisory personnel.
- Two hours of interactive training and education on sexual harassment to all supervisory personnel.
Other factors important to fulfilling mandated training obligations include:
- Providing training once every two years and within six months of assuming a supervisor or non-supervisory role.
- Providing training on preventing abusive conduct and practical examples of harassment based on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
Anti-harassment training may be virtual or in-person but must be conducted by qualified instructors. Western Growers members can find information on employee training by visiting the Western Growers University and reviewing the Department of Fair Employment and Housing’s Harassment Prevention Guide.
[i] Cal. Govt. Code Sec. 12940(k).