By Philippe A. Lebel
On April 1, 2016, the California Fair Employment and Housing Council’s (FEHC) new Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) regulations take effect. The overarching purpose of the new FEHC regulations is to harmonize the regulations with recent court decisions. However, employers should take note of some of the more significant changes the new regulations impose, including: (a) expanding and clarifying the scope of employers covered under the FEHA; (b) requiring employers to develop specific, detailed anti-discrimination/anti-harassment policies and internal procedures; and (c) enlarging employers’ training and related recordkeeping obligations. Notably, the new regulations also clarify employers’ potential liability for claims regarding alleged failure to prevent unlawful harassment or discrimination, as well as the remedies available.
More Employers Are Covered
The FEHA only covers employers who regularly employ five or more persons. See Cal. Gov’t Code § 12926(d). Under the prior regulations, to “regularly employ” five or more individuals meant that the employer employed five or more individuals in each working day in any 20 consecutive calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year. The new regulations further clarify that, in determining whether an employer regularly employs five or more individuals, consideration must be given to out-of-state employees. Thus, under the new regulations, an employer who employs only three employees in California is still an “employer” for purposes of the FEHA if it employs two or more employees outside of California (see footnote 1). The new regulations further clarify that, in counting the number of employees, individuals on leaves of absence or suspensions are counted.
Expanded Anti-Harassment, Anti-Discrimination, And Anti-Retaliation Policy And Procedure Requirements
Under the FEHA, employers have an affirmative obligation to prevent unlawful harassment and/or discrimination. To that end, pursuant to California Government Code Section 12950(b), employers are (and have been) required to distribute the DFEH’s brochure (DFEH-185) on unlawful sexual harassment, or provide the information in a comparable writing. However, the FEHC’s new regulations mandate that, in addition to the preexisting obligation with respect to providing the DFEH’s brochure (or comparable information), employers must now promulgate their own anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies that satisfy a variety of detailed requirements.
Specifically, under the new regulations, employers’ anti-discrimination/anti-harassment policies must:
- • Be in writing;
- • List all current protected categories covered under the FEHA;
- • Indicate that the FEHA prohibits coworkers and third parties, as well as supervisors and managers, with whom the employee comes into contact from engaging in conduct prohibited by the FEHA;
- • Create a complaint process to ensure that complaints receive:
- -An employer’s designation of confidentiality, to the extent possible;
- -A timely response;
- -Impartial and timely investigations by qualified personnel;
- -Documentation and tracking for reasonable progress;
- -Appropriate options for remedial actions and resolutions; and
- -Timely closures.
- •Provide a complaint mechanism that does not require an employee to complain directly to his or her immediate supervisor, including, but not limited to the following:
- -Direct communication, either orally or in writing, with a designated company representative, such as a HR manager, EEO officer, or other supervisor;
- -A complaint hotline;
- -Access to an ombudsperson; and/or
- -Identification of the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as additional avenues for employees to lodge complaints.
- •Instruct supervisors to report any complaints of misconduct to a designated company representative, so that the company can try to resolve the claim internally (see footnote 2);
- •Indicate that when an employer receives complaints, it will conduct a fair, timely, and thorough investigation that provides all parties appropriate due process and reaches reasonable conclusions based on the evidence collected;
- •State that confidentiality will be kept by the employer to the extent possible, but not indicate that the investigation will be completely confidential;
- •Indicate that if, at the end of the investigation, misconduct is found, appropriate remedial actions will be taken; and
- •Make clear that employees shall not be exposed to retaliation as a result of lodging a complaint or participating in any workplace investigation.
Under the new FEHC regulations, employers must disseminate their policies by one or more of the following methods:
- Providing printed copies of the policies to all employees with an acknowledgment for employees to sign and return;
- Sending the policies via email with an acknowledgment return form;
- Posting current versions of the policies on a company intranet with a tracking system to ensure that all employees have read and acknowledged receipt of the policies;
- Discussing the policies upon hire and/or during new employee orientation/training; and/or
- “Any other way that ensures employees receive and understand the policies.”
In addition to providing the policies in English, any employer whose workforce contains 10 percent or more of persons who speak a language other than English must translate their policies into any language(s) spoken by 10 percent or more of their workforce.
Updated Training And Related Recordkeeping Requirements
Pursuant to section 12950.1 of the California Government Code, employers with 50 or more employees have been and are required to provide supervisory employees with a minimum of two hours of sexual harassment training. Pursuant to the new FEHC regulations, in addition to satisfying the existing statutory requirements, the mandatory training must also:
- •Instruct supervisory employees of their obligation to report potential sexual harassment, discrimination, and/or retaliation of which they become aware;
- •Provide an overview of the remedies available for sexual harassment victims in civil actions, as well as potential employer/individual exposure and liability; and
- •Cover “abusive conduct,” as used in Government Code section 12950.1 (see footnote 3), in a “meaningful manner,” including by: (a) providing a definition of abusive conduct; (b) explaining the negative effects of abusive conduct on the victim and others in the workplace; (c) specifically discussing the elements of abusive conduct; (d) providing examples of abusive conduct; and (e) emphasizing that, unless the conduct is especially severe or egregious, a single act shall not constitute abusive conduct.
In addition to the above updated training requirements, the new FEHC regulations require employers to maintain training-related records for at least two years. Records to be maintained include, but are not limited to: (a) the names of the participants; (b) the dates of the trainings; (c) sign-in sheets; (d) copies of all certificates of attendance or completion; (e) information regarding the type of training; (f) copies of all written or recorded materials comprising the trainings; and (g) the name of the training provider.
Clarifying Liability For Failure To Prevent Unlawful Discrimination Or Harassment
Recent case law confirmed that California employers cannot be held liable in a civil action for a stand-alone claim for failure to take reasonable steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment or discrimination if there is no underlying unlawful harassment or discrimination. The new FEHC regulations codify that authority and take it further in several respects:
- •First, the regulations clarify that, in undertaking the individualized assessment of whether an employer failed to take all reasonable steps to prevent unlawful discrimination or harassment, consideration should be given to a variety of factors, including, but not limited to: (a) the size of the employer’s workforce; (b) the employer’s budget; (c) the nature of the employer’s business; and (d) the facts of each particular case.
- •Second, the regulations provide that the DFEH may independently seek non-monetary preventative remedies for an employer’s failure to take all reasonable measures to properly prevent harassment or discrimination even if there is no underlying liability for discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.
California employers (and any out-of-state employers with at least five employees total and one employee in California) should promptly review and revise their anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. In conjunction with that effort, employers should ensure that their procedures with respect to disseminating policies and handling employee complaints satisfy the new requirements. Employers with 50 or more employees should ensure that their sexual harassment trainings encompass the additional topics and should begin retaining all records relating to such trainings for at least two years. For assistance with ensuring compliance, employers should seek advice from qualified California employment counsel.
- While such out-of-state employees are counted in determining whether an employer falls under the FEHA’s ambit, the new FEHC regulations clarify that out-of-state employees “are not themselves covered by the protections of the … FEHA if the wrongful conduct did not occur in California and …was not ratified by decision makers or participants located in California.”
- For employers with 50 or more employees, mandatory sexual harassment training must also instruct supervisors to report any complaints of misconduct to a designated company representative.
- See California AB 2053, effective January 1, 2015.