United States: Spotlight On Harassment Prevention: EEOC Issues New Report

The EEOC recently released a lengthy report based on the findings of a task force commissioned to conduct an in-depth study of workplace harassment. After 18 months, countless interviews in diverse fields of study, and a series of both public and private meetings, the EEOC's Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace released a 90-page report that both detailed its findings and offered numerous recommendations to prevent harassment in the employment context.

Startling Harassment Statistics

In 2015, the EEOC was flush with charges of harassment, receiving approximately 30,000 such claims from employees. These claims predominately took the form of harassment on the basis of sex (45%) or race (34%) and, to a lesser extent, disability (19%), age (15%) or national origin (13%). Harassment on the basis of religion made up only 5% of charges, but that number is expected to rise given the current political climate. Moreover, the EEOC believes that harassment in the workplace is likely even more rampant than is suggested by these statistics, and estimates that as many as 75% of harassed employees do not file reports out of fear of retaliation, hopelessness or embarrassment. 

Given that sex-based harassment constituted the highest percentage of reported claims, the EEOC focused primarily on the prevention of sexual harassment, acknowledging in the report that a further in-depth study in other forms of harassment is needed.

Harassment Risk Factors in the Workplace

The EEOC identified several risk factors that make an office environment more susceptible to incidents of harassment:

  • Lack of diversity in the workplace.
  • Cultural and language differences among employees.
  • Emotional social discourse outside the workplace.
  • Predominately young workforce.
  • Significant power disparities among employees.
  • A culture that encourages alcohol consumption.
  • Workplaces with "high value" employees, meaning that some employees are critical and viewed as not subject to the same rules as others.
  • Decentralized workplace.
  • Work that is monotonous or consists of low-intensity tasks.

A Holistic Approach

With the identification of these factors, the EEOC intends to move toward a more holistic approach in the fight against harassment, scrutinizing the specific culture and needs of each particular workplace. With this in mind, the report recommends that employers focus on encouraging bystander intervention and workplace civility. The report suggests creating an "It's on Us" campaign, similar to those on college campuses geared toward the prevention of sexual assault. The theory is that this will promote a feeling of collective responsibility and encourage a supportive environment where employees feel comfortable reporting the harassment of themselves or others. The EEOC believes that the necessary changes must come from the top down and that it therefore is imperative that managers and other senior employees are involved and encourage general civility in the workplace. As part of the holistic approach to prevention, the EEOC's position seems to be that incivility ultimately leads to harassment, calling incivility "an antecedent to workplace harassment."

Unsurprisingly, the report also recommends that employers have effective policies and procedures in place. However, the report stresses that having the right policies is not sufficient. Leadership must be very involved in prevention and creating a civil atmosphere. 

How Should Employers Adjust?

The Commission is clear that it intends to pursue even more harassment claims. Thus, employers would be wise to ensure the following adjustments are made:

  • Review policies
    • Provide a clear explanation of prohibited conduct and include specific examples.
    • Assure that those who make complaints or assist in an investigation will be protected from retaliation, and stress that confidentiality will be respected.
    • Clearly identify the complaint process and include multiple, available avenues of complaint.
    • Guarantee that immediate and proportionate action will be taken if harassment has occurred.
    • Ensure that conduct which may not be legally actionable but may lead to harassment is responded to appropriately.
    • Encourage an "if you see something, say something" culture.
  • Improve civility training
    • Focus on promoting a culture where harassment is not tolerated.
    • Make clear that incivility will not be tolerated, even if it is not legally actionable.
    • Involve leadership to create a sense of collective responsibility.
  • Be aware of warnings signs: If the workplace has risk factors identified by the EEOC, be on alert for possible unreported harassment or developing instances of harassment.
  • Take strong but appropriate corrective action should there be a finding of harassment.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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