In a previous article we discussed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) 2017-2021 Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP), providing insight into the type of employment practices the federal agency plans to focus on during the next four years. One of its priorities includes a continuation of the prior years’ SEP in preventing and mitigating systemic harassment in the workplace.
The EEOC announced that in 2015 the agency had been inundated with allegations of harassment, receiving 28,642 claims from employees across the country. These claims involved harassment on the basis of sex (45%) or race (34%) and, to a lesser extent, disability (19%), age (15%) or national origin (13%). Additionally, the federal agency 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.
Charges of harassment come at a steep cost for employers. Of the 28,642 cases in 2015, 5,518 charges involving allegations of harassment were resolved in favor of the charging party through the administrative process, resulting in $125.5 million in benefits for employees. Since 2010, in fact, employers have paid out $698.7 million to employees alleging harassment through the Commission's administrative enforcement pre-litigation process alone.
The EEOC has identified several risk factors that make an office environment more vulnerable to harassment. These factors include: a lack of diversity in the workplace; cultural and language differences among employees; emotional social discourse outside the workplace; a predominantly 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; a decentralized workplace; and monotonous work or work that involves low-intensity tasks.
With these risks in mind, 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. In a report issued by the EEOC, the agency outlines the following recommendations for employers to take to help prevent workplace harassment:
- Have a clear explanation of prohibited conduct, including examples.
- Foster an organizational culture in which harassment is not tolerated, and in which respect and civility are promoted. Employers should communicate and model a consistent commitment to that goal.
- Assess the workplace for risk factors associated with harassment and explore ideas for minimizing those risks.
- Conduct surveys to assess the extent to which harassment is a problem in the organization.
- Devote sufficient resources to harassment prevention efforts, both to ensure that such efforts are effective, and to reinforce the credibility of leadership's commitment to creating a workplace free of harassment.
- Provide clear assurance that employees who make complaints or provide information related to complaints, witnesses, and others who participate in the investigation will be protected against retaliation.
- Implement a clearly described complaint process that provides multiple, accessible avenues of complaint.
- Provide assurance that the employer will protect the confidentiality of harassment complaints to the extent possible.
- Ensure that where harassment is found to have occurred, discipline is prompt and proportionate to the severity of the infraction. In addition, employers should ensure that where harassment is found to have occurred, discipline is consistent, and does not give (or create the appearance of) undue favor to any particular employee.
- Hold mid-level managers and front-line supervisors accountable for preventing and/or responding to workplace harassment, including through the use of metrics and performance reviews.
- If employers have a diversity and inclusion strategy and budget, harassment prevention should be an integral part of that strategy.
An employer’s policy should be written in clear, simple words, in all the languages used in the workplace.
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Sources: EEOC, MONDAQ