Unlike a lot of other career paths, when you are an elected official, you are always, in many ways, working. Whether you’re in the office working on legislation or compromise or out in the community, your job doesn’t stick within the traditional boundaries of a 9-5 schedule or work shift.
That means you are at risk for many more opportunities for others to claim sexual harassment against you. Most sexual harassment is governed by laws that prohibit sexual harassment within the workplace. This would apply to people your office employs, like your assistants, researchers, and even interns.
But what about the citizens you govern? Those people certainly aren’t your employees – if anything, perhaps you may be employed by them. But any member of the public can accuse you of sexual harassment and, because of your job as an elected official, this new item becomes severe and significant, and the ramifications can include you losing your job, even prior to any legal investigation and regardless of your guilt or innocence.
If you are an elected official accused of sexual harassment in California, contact Sexual Harassment Attorney. We have years of experience defending those who are accused. We have worked with clients across California, and based on what we’ve learned, we put together the information below as a starting point to understand sexual harassment and what it can mean for elected officials.
Know that this information should not be taken for legal advice. Only experienced lawyers and legal teams who specifically understand your case can provide legal counsel.
Definition of Sexual Harassment
Sometimes sexual harassment feels like a vague term – does it include specific actions or can a whole range of activities fall within the definition?
Generally speaking, sexual harassment includes unwanted actions or behaviors that are sexual in nature, whether overtly or by undertones. Typically, sexual harassment involves one person (or more) directing sexual language, actions, or behaviors towards one person (or more), with the second group not welcoming or consenting to such action.
Sexual harassment is illegal, and it is governed by laws at both the federal and state levels.
Federal Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment was codified into law with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of the act specifically makes sexual harassment illegal in the workplace, among other types of discrimination including sex. The workplace is defined as any employer (public or private) that has 15 or more employees, as well as federal, state, and local governments, labor organizations and unions, and employment agencies.
The law prohibits the following activities when such activities have a negative impact on the subjected individual’s employment or work performance and/or creates a work environment that is hostile, offensive, or intimidating:
- Sexual behavior or advances that are unwelcome
- Demands or requests for sex or sex-related favors
- Verbal, physical, or mental conduct of a sexual nature
The law and other statues that support it make clear that sexual harassment can include any of the following circumstances, too:
- Both parties (the harasser and the victim) can be of the same sex (male or female).
- The harasser can have a direct relationship to the victim, such as the victim’s supervisor or employer, but the harasser can also be an indirect supervisor, manager in another department, a colleague, or even a non-employee, such as a client of the company.
- The victim is not limited to the person who is subject to the harassment. Other victims can be affected by offensive or hostile conduct.
- The victim does not have to be terminated or otherwise suffer economic injury in the workplace.
California Sexual Harassment
The State of California expands on the federal definition of sexual harassment, and the parameters for it, with a law known as the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Both FEHA and the California Constitution make discrimination on the basis of sex illegal, but FEHA has additional, more explicit standards, dividing sexual harassment into two types:
- Quid pro quo harassment, wherein the harasser makes an explicit offer (i.e., promotion, raise, opportunity, etc.) or a threat (i.e., termination, demotion, etc.) in exchange for sexual action or conduct from the victim.
- Hostile work environment harassment, wherein the harasser transforms the work environment from standard, workaday to a more hostile, offensive environment that makes it difficult or impossible for the victim(s) to work appropriately, effectively, or otherwise comfortably.
Should a victim accuse his or her harasser of sexual harassment, the victim needs only one instance of a quid pro quo situation to support lawsuit or other legal action. But sexual harassment under hostile work environment is harder to accuse, as it can be much harder to prove because it requires many instances of something like inappropriate language, sharing, or other generalized activities.
Sexual harassment can certainly fall under both quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment sexual harassment, as a victim who is forced into a quid pro quo situation could quite easily feel the work environment therefore has become hostile.
Importantly, during your career as an elected official, in some ways your whole life is the workplace. A member of the public is not employed by you can accuse you of sexual harassment. While the California Fair Housing and Employment Act may not come into play, sexual harassment and related activities are still illegal.
Tips to Avoid Sexual Harassment Accusations
As an elected official, you are susceptible to sexual harassment accusations because of your well-known status among your community. Your public office means that you may be condemned as having committed sexual harassment in the public eye even before your right to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. This public judgment can destroy your political career and cause major detriment to your personal life as well.
In fact, a recent poll from November 2017 indicates that 62 percent of voters reported that they would definitely not vote for a political candidate if he or she had been accused of sexual harassment by multiple people.
The best way to prevent accusations of sexual harassment is to avoid compromising situations as much as possible. Here are some tips to prevent such accusations:
- Retain a lawyer. Your political team likely already has one or more lawyers on retainer for specific situations related to your political office and campaign. But you may want to seek a personal lawyer who can consult with you on ways to avoid such accusations, both in public and within the workplace. This personal lawyer may not overlap with other members of your team, or you may decide to loop in one or two trusted employees.
- Develop a plan for such instances. Like the saying of expecting the best but planning the worst, you should anticipate that as a public figure, sexual harassment accusations are within the realm of possibility. Develop a plan for how you would handle a situation, so that you are prepared, not shocked, if one does indeed come along.
- Decide on a media strategy. Part of any plan, real or preparatory, for handling sexual harassment accusations is to decide how you will talk with and handle media. As a public official, both local and national news outlets will follow your story, and you and your entire team will be subject to calls, emails, and other attempts to gather information from the media. Decide in advance what your policy will be.
- Adopt a sexual harassment policy for your office’s workplace. Whether your team is small or large, your employees should be aware of a sexual harassment policy (often included in an employee handbook). This policy should define sexual harassment as your office sees it, while establishing a way for people to file complains as well as a process for discipline if sexual harassment is determined. Adopting such a policy is common sense for a workplace but can further mitigate changes you’ll be accused of such behavior.
- Keep a record of exchanges. You may choose to keep personal notes regarding your interactions with others, especially if you suspect one or more individuals may accuse you of sexual harassment in the future. Keep informal notes, either typed or handwritten, in a private place that only you and perhaps a trusted individual, such as your lawyer, can access them if the need arises. The notes can include dates and times of meetings, individuals involved, and what was said or insinuated.
- Know your surroundings. As an elected official, you work in an office, attend many public and private events, and are networking constantly. As best as possible, know who you are working with, talking to, and who may be listening in to private conversations. By paying attention to your environment, you may avoid saying or doing things that could be misconstrued inappropriately and turned into accusations.
- Inform your team. In the event that you are accused of sexual harassment, inform your team about the plans you’ve previously developed, so that all your employees understand how to handle the situation.
- Maintain open communication with your team. In recent sexual harassment accusations, it is evident that offices and workplaces that promote privacy or are not transparent about certain topics, such as sexual behavior in the workplace, are more susceptible to it occurring there. Talking openly about related topics from the news, sharing why you may have had to let an employee go, and training your workplace staff helps solidify your position as an upstanding elected official.
- Treat everyone the same way. Like always knowing your environment, you should adopt a policy of fairness towards everyone you come into contact with, whether in a professional, political, or personal way.
Defending Against Sexual Harassment
If you have been formally accused of sexual harassment, the alleged victim is likely pursuing some sort of legal action, seeking a court judgment or some settlement out of court.
In this situation, your best first move is to seek and retain a lawyer who focuses on sexual harassment defense, especially for elected officials. You should share all knowledge of the case with your lawyer, who can then provide specific legal advice on whether to settle out of court for a specific amount of money and other terms or to take the case to court, letting a judge determine whether you are guilty or innocent.
Should you take your case to court, your lawyer will explore several potential defenses to these accusations. The following are common defenses for sexual harassment accusations:
- Pleading innocence. This may be the first avenue your lawyer will explore. Pleading innocence still leaves the burden of proof with the prosecution to prove your guilt.
- Determining victim motivation. This may be the main defense or one part of a larger strategy. Your alleged victim may be making these accusations against you for a variety of reasons including revenge or retribution, blackmail, an attempt to undermine your political power or reputations, etc.
- Arguing consent. A skilled lawyer may be able to show that your alleged victim actually consented to any alleged sexual activities or behavior. In order for consent to be an option, the alleged victim must be aged 18 or older (determined by California law) at the time of the alleged event(s).
- Pleading insanity or mental incapacity. This can be difficult to plead, particularly because unlike all other defenses, in this situation, the burden of proof rests with you and your defense team. Pleading insanity, even of a temporary nature, can have significant ramifications on your political career, so this may be riskier than other defense options.
Accusations of sexual harassment, whether false or true, will undoubtedly have significant negative impact on the life and career of an elected official. Protect yourself today by understanding your rights and getting personalized, legal advice. At Sexual Harassment Attorney, we have specific experience defending sexual harassment lawsuits and fighting for elected officials across the State of California. Call us today at 800-905-1856 to get started with our expert, professional legal team.