Nearly one-third of the approximately 90,000 complaints made to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) in 2015 alleged workplace harassment, an activity deemed discriminatory under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That number of harassment complaints is staggering, especially when one considers that many employees who have been harassed will not speak up out of a fear of not being taken seriously, or a concern that their harasser or employer will retaliate.
In a report issued by the EEOC in June 2016, a Select Task Force* of the commission met over a period of 18 months and identified potential risk factors that can lead to harassment. The task force also made recommendations designed to help employers craft and implement policies, educate employees, implement procedures for complaints, reporting and investigations, and create a culture of zero tolerance for harassment.
The panel’s findings included the following:
- Workplace harassment is a persistent problem, and too often goes unreported.
- There are compelling financial reasons to prevent and stop harassment, including productivity costs, employee turnover and reputational harm that can come with harassment complaints. Employers’ legal expenses for workplace harassment can also be a drain; in 2015 alone, the EEOC recovered $164.5 million for workers who had alleged workplace harassment.
- Leadership, accountability and training at all levels of an organization are key in creating a harassment-free workplace. Employers should consider new approaches to harassment training, with a focus on promoting civility and respect in the workplace.
- Everyone in an organization has a duty and a responsibility to prevent and stop workplace harassment.
The report outlines specific recommendations designed to help employers raise awareness, promote leadership and accountability, and implement policies, procedures and training around workplace harassment. Key takeaways for employers include:
- Culture and resources. Employers need to devote sufficient resources to preventing harassment, and need to consistently model their commitment to maintaining a harassment-free workplace. Managers and supervisors should be held accountable for the prevention of, and response to, workplace harassment complaints.
- Dealing with complaints. When harassment has occurred, employers need to promptly address it, and discipline should be appropriate to the circumstances and consistent with disciplinary action for other employees (i.e. no preferential treatment.)
- Comprehensive policy. Workplace harassment policies need to be comprehensive and multi-faceted, and should include social media harassment considerations. Employers should periodically “test” their reporting system to determine how well it is working.
- Training. All employees should be regularly trained, and re-trained, on workplace harassment policies, and employers need to dedicate sufficient resources to training, education and responding to complaints. Employers should also consider incorporating workplace civility training and bystander intervention training into their workplace harassment programs.
- Investigations. Employers need to devote sufficient resources to investigating complaints of workplace harassment, so that such investigations will be thorough, prompt, confidential and objective.
No matter how comprehensive your workplace harassment program is, and despite best efforts to prevent harassment from occurring, incidents may still arise. Implementing the EEOC’s Select Task Force’s recommendations to strengthen your program can help ensure you have the framework in place to appropriately address, investigate and resolve harassment claims when they are raised.
* The task force behind this report was made up of a diverse group of people from around the country, and included both plaintiff’s and defense attorneys, employers and employee advocacy groups, representatives of various social science disciplines in academia, and organized labor. Members included:
Chai R. Feldblum, Commissioner, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Victoria A. Lipnic, Commissioner, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Sahar F. Aziz, Associate Professor of Law, Texas A&M University
Meg A. Bond, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Women and Work, University of Massachusetts Lowell
Jerry Carbo, Associate Professor of Management and Marketing, Shippensburg University
Manuel Cuevas-TrisÃ¡n, Vice President, Litigation, Data Protection & Employment Law, Motorola Solutions, Inc.
Frank Dobbin, Professor of Sociology, Harvard University
Stephen C. Dwyer, General Counsel, American Staffing Association
Brenda Feis, Partner, Feis Goldy LLC
Fatima Goss Graves, Vice President for Education and Employment, National Women’s Law Center
Ariane Hegewisch, Program Director, Employment & Earnings, Institute for Women’s Policy Research
Christopher Ho, Senior Staff Attorney and Director, Immigration and National Origin Program, Legal Aid Society – Employment Law Center
Thomas A. Saenz, President & General Counsel, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
Jonathan A. Segal, Partner, Duane Morris and Managing Principal, Duane Morris Institute
Joseph M. Sellers, Partner, Cohen Milstein LLC
Angelia Wade Stubbs, Associate General Counsel, AFL-CIO
Rae T. Vann, General Counsel, Equal Employment Advisory Council