Over the past week, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sent a series of signals to US employers that it is focusing its energies on rooting out sexual and other forms of harassment in the American workplace. On Thursday, the agency announced that it had filed seven separate lawsuits against employers throughout the country over allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct, as well as racial harassment and other forms of abuse.
“As the nation has seen over the past nine months, harassment at work can affect individuals for years in their careers and livelihoods,” EEOC Acting Chair Victoria A. Lipnic said in a press release announcing the lawsuits. “There are many consequences that flow from harassment not being addressed in our nation’s workplaces. These suits filed by the EEOC around the country are a reminder that a federal enforcement action by the EEOC is potentially one of those consequences.” About a quarter of the lawsuits filed by the EEOC in recent years has involved an allegation of harassment, Lipnic added, as do one third of the 80,000 to 90,000 discrimination charges the EEOC receives each year.
The EEOC also recognizes that most instances of harassment never come to its attention. Studies show that more than 80 percent of harassment victims never file a formal complaint, the agency noted in its statement, while nearly three quarters never even raise the issue internally within their organizations. To that end, and in light of the heightened public consciousness of sexual harassment brought about by the #MeToo movement, the agency is also looking to promote changes in American workplace culture to make harassment less common and more likely to be addressed when it does occur.
On June 11, the EEOC reconvened its Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, a panel of experts including academic scholars, legal practitioners, and representatives of advocacy groups and organized labor, which was established in 2015 to study the problem of harassment (including, but not limited to, sexual harassment) and what employers and the agency itself could do to prevent and respond to it. In her opening remarks at last Monday’s meeting, Lipnic, who co-chairs the task force along with Commissioner Chai R. Feldblum, stressed that harassment had been on the EEOC’s radar for some time, but that the government could not solve the problem alone:
Uber announced on Tuesday that it would no longer require employees, drivers, or customers who experience sexual harassment on the job or while using the ride-sharing service to adjudicate their claims in arbitration proceedings. Coming in response to pressure from former employees and customers, the change will allow alleged victims of sexual harassment in the US to pursue claims against the company in court. Uber will also no longer bind accusers to confidentiality requirements as a condition of receiving a settlement on the company, though it will continue to keep financial details of such settlements confidential.
In a blog post, Uber’s Chief Legal Officer Tony West said the company would also publish a public safety transparency report including data on sexual assaults and other incidents that take place on its platform.
Hours after Uber’s announcement, Lyft also announced that it was waiving its standard arbitration agreement for sexual assault claims and would no longer impose confidentiality requirements on alleged victims of sex crimes, Recode’s Johana Bhuiyan reported later on Tuesday. Lyft also intends to release a safety report on sexual assault complaints it receives on its platform; Lyft COO Jon McNeil wrote on Twitter later Tuesday afternoon that his company would be happy to work together with Uber on this reporting project.
West said Uber had made its decision in the interest of transparency, but also acknowledged the risk the company was taking in being more open about these allegations (albeit a risk mitigated to some extent by the participation of its chief competitor):
Since last year, the #MeToo movement has blown a hole in the shroud of secrecy that has long surrounded the scourge of sexual harassment at companies of all forms, sizes, and industries, both in the US and around the world. Yet just as the public consciousness of this issue is growing, more sexual harassment complaints are being handled behind closed doors than in the past. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and equivalent state agencies received 41 percent fewer complaints in 2017 than they did in 1997, Bloomberg’s Jeff Green points out—not because fewer employees are getting harassed, but rather because companies have become much more likely to handle these matters internally:
Ninety-five percent of companies now have an in-house complaint process, the Society for Human Resource Management said in a January report. Eighty-two percent have an investigation protocol in place. …
At the company level, HR departments don’t always know the extent of their own problems. The same SHRM report found a wide disconnect between what HR sees and what employees are saying. Three out of four non-manager employees who experienced harassment said they did not report it. At the same time, 57 percent of human resource professionals said that unreported sexual harassment occurs “to a small extent.”
Washington Governor Jay Inslee on Wednesday signed a suite of legislation that will make it illegal for employers to use non-disclosure agreements and other contractual provisions to stop employees from reporting or discussing sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, The Hill reports:
One of the bills Inslee signed would prohibit employers from requiring nondisclosure agreements that would stop individuals from speaking out about sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. Another will prevent nondisclosure agreements from barring employee testimony in civil lawsuits relating to assault or harassment claims. That bill also allows those bringing the suits to conduct discovery on previous harassment claims.
Inslee also signed a new law voiding employment contracts and arbitration agreements that preclude an employee from filing assault or harassment complaints outside their companies.
Washington is the first state to take this kind of action in the wake of the #MeToo movement that revealed the still-high prevalence of sexual harassment and misconduct in the American workplace, including the statehouses in Olympia and other capitals.
The Women and Equalities Committee of the UK Parliament has initiated an inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace and what employers and the government can do to better prevent and address it. The inquiry will look at:
- action that the Government and employers can take to change workplace culture, increase confidence to report problems, and make tackling harassment a higher priority
- how staff can be better protected from sexual harassment by clients, customers and others
- how effective – and accessible – tribunals and other legal means of redress are, and what improvements could be made to those systems
- the pros and cons of using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in sexual harassment cases, and what can be done to prevent inappropriate use of NDAs.
In its announcement of the inquiry, the committee points to a recent survey conducted by ComRes on behalf of the BBC, which found that 40 percent of women in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, with women in the 18-34 age demographic reporting slightly a higher rate of prevalence. Another study in 2016 came up with even higher numbers, finding that 52 percent of women (and 63 percent of those aged 16-24) had experienced unwanted behavior including groping, sexual advances and inappropriate jokes in the workplace.
The committee gathered oral evidence on the subject at a hearing in January, from a group of employment experts including the Confederation of British Industry’s Managing Director Neil Carberry and Ksenia Zheltoukhova, Head of Research at the CIPD. At that session, these experts stressed the importance of enabling victims of harassment to feel safe in reporting it, which means changing not only policy but also culture, as Carberry put it: