You went out with a few of your co-workers at the end of the day for a drink. One of them started aggressively hitting on you and wouldn’t leave you alone, so you were forced to leave. Maybe you went to your boss’s wedding, and a co-worker greeted you with an unexpected kiss on the lips.
People often assume that if a co-worker or manager behaves inappropriately outside the workplace and outside of business hours, there’s no point in reporting the behavior because their employer can’t do anything about it. That’s not true – at least in California.
Employers have liability if the conduct is reported to them
Under the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), employers can be liable for employees’ conduct toward one another even when they’re not working and outside of business hours if they fail to respond appropriately to a complaint.
This applies to discrimination as well as sexual harassment. Maybe you ran into a co-worker at the grocery store and they make a homophobic comment because you were with your same-sex spouse or made a racist reference to your adopted child.
Behavior outside work can lead to a hostile work environment
Certainly, employers can’t be expected to police how their employees behave outside the workplace. However, once such actions are reported to them, they have an obligation to deal with them.
That’s because such behavior outside the workplace can cause a hostile work environment for the person on the receiving end. Employers should remind employees whenever they discuss their policies on discrimination and harassment that they aren’t free to do and say to co-workers what they can’t get away with at work if they run into them at Whole Foods or CVS on the weekend.
A responsible employer – and certainly their human resources professionals – should know this. However, if your employer won’t deal with your complaint about a fellow employee’s behavior – particularly if it’s affecting how safe you feel at work – it may be wise to look at your legal options.