Workplace Harassment Corrective Action at All Times
Workplace harassment is often framed as harassment by co-workers; but of course we all know that workplace harassment is equally present when involving non-employees, including customers, patients or public. Most employers view that employees have the right to work in an environment free of harassment based on sex or other protected characteristics, and employers should take immediate and appropriate corrective action once aware of a complaint. A recent case, Turman v. Turning Point of Central California, Inc., illustrates the point that courts view it important for an employer to take immediate action to correct a hostile environment.
Case Facts and Findings
The case involves plaintiff, Joyce Turman, who worked for the defendant, Turning Point of Central California, as a night shift resident monitor at a halfway house where prisoners lived in transition pending their full release into society. When male residents began to frequently propositioned her for sex and subjected her to sexually offensive name-calling and crude gestures, Joyce Turman complained to her manager. She was told that the residents did not “really mean it” and that she should try to be “nicer” to them.
Joyce Turman was subsequently terminated based on a rule that federal contract prohibited having a woman working alone at night and funding cuts necessitated a reduction in staffing to one employee on the night shift.
Ms. Turman sued for gender discrimination and hostile work environment in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Turning Point argued that “harassment by prisoners is inherently part of the job,” and that Turman took the position knowing this fact. At trial, the jury found in favor of Turning Point stating that Turning Point did not have an employment practice that had a disproportionate impact on women. Additionally, whereas Turman was in fact subjected to a hostile work environment, the jury asserted that Turning Point did not fail to take immediate and appropriate corrective action. Turman appealed.
The Court of Appeal (Sixth District) ruled otherwise, and found that the halfway house was still under an obligation under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act to take action. Based on the fact that there was no evidence that Turning Point actually took steps to address the residents’ harassment of Turman, the court rejected the argument that harassment by prisoners was, “inherently part of the job”, and ruled that an employer cannot refrain from taking corrective action in response to complaints even in a restrictive, penal environment such as the workplace in this case.
This case should solidify the notion that an employer is well advised to respond timely and appropriately to any and complaints of hostile work environment. Regardless of the nature of the work, the work environment and the individuals an employee is interacting with at work; an employer should take immediate and corrective action to address the complaint Employers are advisedto train on practical guidance regarding prevention of and response to claims of harassment. The team of consultants at SharedHR is available to assist with any policy or training needs you may have related to workplace harassment.