No employee should be subjected to sexual harassment at work. Not only does sexual harassment create a hostile work environment, it breaks employee laws. California employers who allow or engage in sexual harassment can be liable for damages to the employee.

Recently, Carrols Restaurant Group Inc. settled a group of sexual harassment suits filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Carrols’ female employees. Carrols is the world’s largest franchisee of Burger King Restaurants — owning 572 around the world. The suit was filed 14 years ago after a complaint was made by an employee to the EEOC. The court allowed the EEOC to contact all 90,000 of the company’s female employees to determine how widespread the sexual harassment was.

During its investigation, the EEOC identified at least 511 women that had faced harassment. Over the years, the cases were litigated separately and by 2010 only 89 women remained. The EEOC claims that these women were subjected to unwanted touching and obscene comments which violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In some cases, employers exposed their genitals to the women. Furthermore, some of the employees even reported being raped.

Carrols denies all of these allegations and admits no wrongdoing in the settlement. Instead, Carrols claims that the cost of the litigation was the reason why they were choosing to settle with the EEOC. Under the terms of the settlement, Carrols will pay $2.5 million.

All California employees should know that they do not have to tolerate sexual harassment at work and that it the harassment does not have to escalate to touching before it is illegal. Even comments, jokes or inappropriate pictures can result in sexual harassment. Those that have been sexually harassed have options and can put an end to the humiliating behavior.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “Burger King franchisee’s tab for sex-harassment claims: $2.5 million,” Jenn Harris, Jan. 11, 2013