Most people think that workplace sexual harassment can only occur in the workplace – or at least while at a work event. If a colleague gets grabby at an impromptu Happy Hour gathering or the head of another department insists on dancing with you at a co-worker’s wedding, you may figure you have no recourse.
That’s not the case. Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), employers are required to investigate complaints of harassment, discrimination or retaliation by fellow employees regardless of where they occur. If they don’t, they can be held legally responsible.
There’s no such thing as “off the record”
Further, employers are responsible for investigating complaints even if they aren’t made formally. For example, if you mention to your boss that another manager kept pulling you onto the dance floor and making you slow dance at that wedding you all went to over the weekend, they’re required to address the matter just as they would if you filed a formal complaint. That’s true even if you tell them not to. There are no “off-the-record” harassment or discrimination complaints under FEHA.
The same is the case if someone else reports the inappropriate behavior. Maybe you chose to let the matter go, but a colleague was bothered by it and mentioned it to the boss. Again, that creates an obligation to act.
Behavior outside of work can create a hostile work environment
In the critically acclaimed TV series Severance, people’s work memories and non-work memories are separated. That’s not the real world. When colleagues behave improperly toward each other – regardless of where they are when it happens – that can create a hostile work environment.
If your employer has failed to deal with harassment or other prohibited workplace behavior because it occurred outside the workplace and on your personal time, it’s important to know the law and your rights so that you can assert them. It’s wise to seek legal guidance.