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:
Despite the #MeToo movement bringing the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace to the forefront of the public consciousness in the US and around the world, a recent survey from the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence finds that most American workers don’t see their employer taking new action to prevent or stop it. The association gives an overview of the survey at Phys.org:
Only 10 percent of U.S. workers said their employer has added more training or resources related to sexual harassment since the recent increased media and public attention on this serious workplace problem. Just 8 percent said their employer implemented a more stringent policy related to sexual harassment, and only 7 percent reported that their employer hosted an all-staff meeting or town hall to discuss sexual harassment.
Research has shown training to recognize and report sexual harassment isn’t enough to change employee behavior or a workplace culture where harassment is more likely to occur. Instead, psychologists recommend a comprehensive approach that incorporates fair policies that are clearly communicated, ongoing training, leadership support of a civil and respectful culture, and the hiring and promotion of women into senior leadership roles.
It is certainly easy for companies to fall back on training as a solution when their main concern is mitigating liability. However, sexual harassment training is arguably better than no response at all; at the very least, it acknowledges that sexual harassment exists and signals to employees that the organization does not intend to simply sweep it under the rug. Without that acknowledgment from an organization and its leaders, by comparison, employee morale and confidence in the organization’s ability or willingness to handle harassment can suffer greatly. This can send organizations into a self-destructive feedback loop: Lack of acknowledgement and action from leadership discourages employees from reporting, which causes leaders to believe that their organization doesn’t actually have a harassment problem. This makes the fallout all the more damaging when it eventually comes to light that they were wrong.
In a white paper my colleague Lori Lipe and I are currently writing, we look at some of the beliefs that hinder employees from reporting sexual harassment. What we are seeing is that employees’ perception of whether harassment is actually taken seriously at the organization factors heavily into their consideration of the costs and benefits of coming forward. In our latest Global Labor Market Survey, CEB, now Gartner, found that employees are significantly less likely to report when there is a gender imbalance at the top management team, particularly when it is male-dominated. This perception likely stems from the skepticism that male leaders may not take harassment as seriously and therefore dismiss accusations or be unmotivated to pursue justice. This relationship is also evident in the findings of the APA survey:
Last week, The New York City Council passed a suite of 11 separate bills intended to address the scourge of workplace sexual harassment by providing additional protections for victims and imposing new obligations on organizations to prevent harassment, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The measures include a mandate requiring employers with 15 or more workers to conduct sexual harassment prevention training for all employees at least once a year. Employers in the city will also be required to display an anti-sexual-harassment poster designed by the local government, while prospective contractors will have to detail their anti-harassment policies in their bids for city contracts. City agencies will be obligated to report harassment incidents to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, in order to collect more information on the prevalence of sexual harassment, which the city does not currently know enough about.
Another bill expands sexual harassment protections under the New York City Human Rights Law to employees of organizations with four or fewer employees, meaning all employees will be covered by them. Yet another bill increases the statute of limitations for filing harassment claims from one year to three. (Jackson Lewis attorneys offer a more complete description of the bills at the law firm’s website.)
State legislators in Delaware are considering a bill that would take an unusually aggressive policy approach to combating sexual harassment in the workplace. A bill introduced at the end of March by Rep. Helene Keeley would classify sexual harassment as an unlawful employment practices and require all organizations with 50 employees or more to give supervisors two hours of training on sexual harassment prevention every two years, the Delaware State News reports:
The measure offers a relatively broad description of sexual harassment, defining it as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” … The measure specifies an employer could be held responsible for sexual harassment when it “knows or should have known of the conduct and fails to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.”
The bill comes amid a slew of measures Delaware lawmakers are taking to strengthen the state’s policies against sexual harassment, including the adoption of written sexual harassment policies by the legislature itself and an attempt to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution, which recently passed the House for the first time, the News Journal adds.
The Delaware State Chamber of Commerce has expressed some reservations about Keeley’s bill and is making recommendations on how it might be amended, but does not oppose it in principle, according to the State News:
The New York City Council is considering what the New York Times describes as “a raft of legislation” to address sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace, including a requirement that all businesses with at least 15 employees conduct sexual harassment prevention training:
Much of the legislation, called the Stop Sexual Harassment in New York City Act, is focused on addressing instances of sexual misconduct that may go unreported, particularly within city agencies. Several of the bills create reporting requirements for city contractors or agencies. One bill would create a system for surveying agencies to prompt anonymous disclosure of potential problems to try to prevent harassment.
Private employers would also be required to display a poster with practical examples of sexual harassment, as well as a way to contact city, state or federal authorities with complaints.
If the legislation passes, New York City will become one of only a few jurisdictions where private employers are required to provide this training. California and Connecticut require that organizations with at least 50 employees provide training to supervisors, while Maine requires organizations of at least 15 people to train all employees, plus additional training for supervisors. Some states have sexual harassment training requirements for public sector employees or educators, while others encourage but don’t mandate it for private employers, and still others take the presence of such training into account in judging whether an employer was negligent in a sexual harassment case.