This is what you should do…
California's Fair Employment and Housing Act as well as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for employers to allow anyone to be sexually harassed at work, regardless of one's gender, race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or national origin. By placing the responsibility on employers, it holds the company accountable for creating a work environment that is free from harassment. Therefore, sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal when employers knowingly ignore its presence and/or do not take the appropriate steps to ensure that the harassment stops.
There are specific steps an employer must take when sexual harassment claims have been made, and they include starting a mandatory investigation. Depending on the situation and the company, some employers will rely on an in-house Human Resources department to head the investigation, while others may hire an outside professional.
Regardless of what took place, when an employee files a sexual harassment claim, an employer must conduct a fair and unbiased investigation. If the results of the investigation determine the claim accusation to be unfounded, the claim against the accused employee will be dropped, and employers need not take any corrective action against the accused. However, depending on the severity of the accusation, even in situations where a complaint investigation found an employee to be falsely accused of sexual harassment, the mere allegation will likely lead to the accused's reputation being damaged. In fact, the accused employee may still lose their job. If this is the case, it may be best for employees wrongly accused to consult with and/or hire an experienced attorney—one with expertise on the employee-side of employment law.
Complaint Process with a Government Agency
When a sexual harassment complaint is made, an employer is responsible for investigating relevant information surrounding the complaint and must resolve the situation in accordance with California's Fair Employment and Housing Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is the state agency where sexual harassment complaints are reported. When a sexual harassment complaint is filed, the process begins with the first of several subsequent steps that DFEH is legally required to follow. Some may believe that a sexual harassment claim will always side with the perceived victim, but going through a thorough investigation process is meant to help ensure a non-biased and fair outcome.
When an investigation is concluded, and the accused employee is found responsible, this employee will likely endure professional ramifications, including reprimands and the very real possibility of being fired. But on the other side of the coin, the wrongfully accused employee may not have legal recourse if their employer fires them after the episode (provided the employer's reason for termination is not prohibited by law).
Furthermore, employers are free to fire at-will employees without reason. Therefore, it's not uncommon for an employer to dismiss an accused employee, regardless of the findings of the investigation. In most cases, it's common for an employer to side with the accuser rather than the accused to avoid any potential future complaints. This type of termination can be legally complicated and may call for hiring an attorney, especially if the reason for the termination is unlawful. Again, in situations where the results of an investigation lead to an employee being fired based on false claims, it's best to hire an experienced attorney to assist with negotiating an exit package from the company.
Wrongful Termination Compensation Awards
Specifically in California, if an employee has been wrongfully terminated under the guise of an unfounded sexual harassment claim—and is able to provide sufficient proof that the actual reason for the termination was unlawful, with employment attorney representation—the employee may be awarded financial compensation and/or the reinstatement of their job. California offers three types of damages, also known as compensation awards, to an employee that wins a wrongful termination claim. They include the following:
- Economic damages compensate a wrongfully terminated employee in the amount of money they would have otherwise earned if the termination did not occur.
- Non-economic damages provide financial compensation to the employee for the emotional suffering and pain that occurred as a result of the wrongful termination.
- Punitive damages are intended as a punishment for the employer and are awarded at the discretion of a court to prevent future wrongful terminations by the employer.
In order to pursue legal action after being wrongfully fired from a job, an attorney will likely need access to all pertinent information, including letters, emails, sworn statements of witnesses, and more. This evidence will help prove a wrongful termination claim. Although there are no federal or state laws in place that protect falsely accused employees of sexual harassment, firing an employee for unlawful reasons remains illegal.
Disclaimer: Please note, while every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this article, it is not intended to be legal advice, as situations differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.
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