United States: EEOC Orientation-Bias Guidance Stirs Controversy Among Commentators

The public comment period for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) proposed workplace harassment guidance closed last week. The EEOC's broad definition of sexual orientation bias drew attention from practitioners and advocacy groups alike. Amidst the uncertain legal landscape surrounding harassment based on sex, the EEOC's proposed guidance takes a progressive stance on the scope of what constitutes sex-based harassment. Under the proposed guidance, the EEOC's definition of harassment based on sex, protected by Title VII, includes an "individual's transgender status or the individual's intent to transition," "gender identity," and "sexual orientation." The guidance went further, stating that "using a name or pronoun inconsistent with the individual's gender identity in a persistent or offensive manner" is sex-based harassment.

The proposed guidance follows a June 2016 report issued by the EEOC's Task Force on Workplace Harassment, describing strategies to prevent harassment at work. According to the report, almost one-third of claims filed with the EEOC are harassment-based, with sexual harassment constituting over 40% of the claims in the private sector. Issued this past January, the EEOC's proposed guidance's purpose is to guide practitioners, employers, and employees alike on the agency's position toward different types of harassment protected by Title VII. The new guidance updates nearly three-decades-old EEOC direction on workplace harassment and expands the scope of harassment in several areas, including sexual orientation and gender identity. The public comment period, which ended this past week, drew 154 comments. The wide array of those comments highlights the controversial nature of what is and is not be protected under Title VII when it comes to sex-based harassment.

Most critics of the proposed guidance called the EEOC's definition of sex-based harassment premature and unsupported by case law. Three federal appellate courts are currently deciding cases based on whether sexual orientation is protected under Title VII, but no appellate court to date has found that it is indeed protected. Opponents of the guidance argued that, without certainty at the Congressional or Supreme Court level, the EEOC is improperly "legislating from below" and is in danger of diminishing its credibility.

On the other hand, supporters of the guidance commended the EEOC for its broad definition of sex-based harassment, and some even urged the EEOC to further broaden the definition to include those who do not identify with the gender binary or who are unable or choose not to transition fully. There was also some concern among proponents that the current phrase "intent to transition" would encourage the court to draft intent-based tests that would exclude certain individuals from protection under Title VII.

Commentators took particular notice of the improper pronoun usage example, which states that using a pronoun inconsistent with an individual's gender can constitute Title VII-prohibited harassment. Some criticized this as an improper classification of hate speech that went beyond the scope of Title VII protection. Others lobbied for an adjustment period for employees and employers to adopt the new standard or, alternatively, add an intent element to the act. Proponents applauded the example's inclusion as a type of harassment often experienced by employees.

As the government agencies and courts grapple with what is protected under Title VII, it would be prudent for all employers (including those who are not in states or localities that have explicitly broadened these protections) to include both sexual orientation and gender identity in their policies and trainings. The EEOC's guidance may signal what is to come in the ever-changing area of sex-based harassment as courts and agencies trend toward a more inclusive definition of sex-based harassment. In addition to the possible legal ramifications, getting ahead of the curve and creating a harassment-free workplace promotes a healthier and happier work environment for all and, in the end, makes good business sense.

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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