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EEOC Report Details Strategies For Employers To Curb Workplace Harassment

Last year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) issued a major report on the subject of sexual and other unlawful harassment in the workplace. The EEOC’s Report (which is available at the following link: “Report of the Co-Chairs of the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace”) highlights the persistent nature of workplace harassment and suggests ways for employers to reboot their harassment prevention efforts.

Given all of the costs entailed by harassment claims, as well as the EEOC’s prominent role in enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws, employers would be wise to review the Report carefully and consider how their policies and procedures for preventing and remedying workplace harassment may need to be modified.

Harassment: The Basics

Under the main federal employment discrimination statute, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, workplace harassment takes two general forms:

  • “Quid pro quo” harassment, in which an employee’s submission to sexual advances or similar behavior (i) is made, explicitly or implicitly, a term or condition of employment, or (ii) is used (or threatened to be used) as a basis for employment decisions affecting the employee. An example is a supervisor’s suggesting to an employee that she will get a promotion or raise if she agrees to date the supervisor. (Notably, quid pro quo harassment, unlike hostile environment harassment, is nearly always sexual in character.)
  • “Hostile environment” harassment, in which an employee is subjected to offensive verbal or physical conduct in the workplace that is (i) based on a protected characteristic (sex, race, religion, age, national origin, etc.), and (ii) sufficiently severe or pervasive as to unreasonably interfere with the employee’s work performance or create an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. Unlike quid pro quo harassment, hostile environment harassment need not involve any actual or threatened change in the victim’s compensation, job duties, or other terms and conditions of employment.

Prevalence And Costs Of Workplace Harassment

As the EEOC details in its Report, workplace harassment remains a persistent problem in the United States. Approximately one-third of the approximately 90,000 charges of discrimination filed with the EEOC in 2015 included claims of workplace harassment. In turn, nearly half of those 30,000 discrimination charges alleged harassment of a sexual nature. These numbers have remained fairly steady over time – in total, since 2010, employees have filed nearly 175,000 EEOC charges alleging workplace harassment.

At the same time, workplace harassment often goes unreported. Indeed, the EEOC’s Report indicates that the least common response by an employee targeted with harassment is to take formal action. The reasons that harassment victims often do not report the conduct are varied, including (i) fear that management will not believe, or will fail to act on, their allegations; (ii) concern that they will be blamed for sparking or inviting the offender’s actions; and (iii) worries about potential repercussions for complaining, both in their current workplaces and in their overall careers.

When employees do complain of workplace harassment, the repercussions for employers can be substantial, including bad publicity, lost productivity, attorneys’ fees, and potential damage awards. Since 2010, the EEOC has recovered more than $700 million (through settlements and court judgments) on behalf of employees alleging harassment, including approximately $125.5 million during 2015. Given that most harassment cases are brought by employees themselves, as opposed to the EEOC, these figures represent only a small percentage of the monies paid out by employers in recent years as part of harassment settlements and damage awards.

Preventing Harassment In The Workplace

The EEOC’s Report suggests a number of important steps that employers should take to minimize instances of workplace harassment:

Successful Anti-Harassment Policies

As a threshold matter, every employer should have a formal, written, anti-harassment policy. (Indeed, such policies are legally required in Massachusetts and some other jurisdictions.) The policy should include all of the following: (i) a clear definition of prohibited conduct, along with specific examples; (ii) a detailed description of how to file a complaint, including multiple reporting avenues; (iii) a statement that complaints will be kept confidential to the extent practicable; and (iv) an assurance that an employee will not be subjected to retaliation for complaining in good faith of harassment.

The Report also recommends certain policy provisions based on current technology trends. For example, given the prevalence of social media in today’s society, an employer’s anti-harassment policy should make clear that inappropriate behavior toward co-workers on social media may violate the policy.

Anti-Harassment Training

In its Report, the EEOC strongly recommends that employers conduct regular anti-harassment training sessions for employees. By helping employees better understand the broad range of actions that can qualify as unlawful harassment – as well as the fact that harassment can be based on characteristics such as age, religion, and national origin, in addition to sex – such training can help reduce future instances of harassment.

The Report also suggests that anti-harassment training be individually tailored for different types of employees. “Generic” training presentations that do not take into account employers’ specific workforces and cultures may not resonate with employees and, accordingly, may be of limited effectiveness. Instead, trainings should incorporate realistic examples and scenarios from the specific worksite(s) involved.

In addition, the Report recommends that employers provide additional training to middle-management and first-line supervisors. Such training should include practical suggestions on how to recognize and respond to instances of possible harassment in the workplace, even before the conduct reaches a legally actionable level.

Promoting Leadership and Accountability

Finally, the Report urges that employers’ top-level leaders take appropriate steps to promote an inclusive, respectful workplace culture. In particular, executives and other high-level management should personally model civility and respect and stress the importance of promoting, fostering and maintaining a harassment-free work environment.

Positive leadership, alone, is not enough – employers need to have systems in place to ensure that reports of harassment are addressed appropriately. Thus, it is also critical for each employer to maintain:

  • A safe and supportive reporting system that assures harassment victims and witnesses that complaints will be addressed promptly and seriously;
  • A neutral, thorough investigative process that ensures that alleged perpetrators of harassment are treated fairly, and that all steps in the investigative process are carefully documented;
  • Clear policies providing for appropriate corrective action when harassment is found to have occurred, with regard to offenders as well as individuals who may have knowingly permitted harassment to occur;
  • A system that rewards managers for promptly and appropriately responding to complaints of harassment; and
  • Regular and direct communications to employees, through a variety of means, making clear that harassment (or retaliation for reports of harassment) will not be tolerated.

Recommendations For Employers

In light of the EEOC’s Report, and the agency’s continued overall focus on unlawful workplace harassment, we recommend that employers take the following steps:

  • Review and update their anti-harassment policies as appropriate, in consultation with experienced employment counsel;
  • Regularly and clearly communicate to employees the principles and procedures set forth in their anti-harassment policies;
  • Ensure that their anti-harassment policies and procedures are carefully and consistently followed when reports of harassment are made, including prompt, thorough and objective investigations, as well as timely and proportional disciplinary consequences for substantiated complaints of harassment;
  • Have their leadership exemplify model behavior and promote create a workplace culture that values civility and respect and does not tolerate harassment; and
  • Assess their workplaces for potential risk factors that could lead to instances of unlawful harassment.

If you have any questions about the EEOC’s Report or would like guidance in connection with any of the issues it raises, please do not hesitate to contact us.