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Attorneys

The EEOC Special Task Force Issues Its Report on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace and Finds that “We Have Come Far But Still Have Far To Go”

June 20 2016

By: Beth V. West

The EEOC Special Task Force (“Task Force”) has spent the last 18 months examining the myriad and complex issues associated with harassment in the workplace. Thirty years after the U.S. Supreme Court held in the landmark case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that workplace harassment was an actionable form of discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Task Force concludes that “we have come a far way since that day, but sadly and too often still have far to go.”

The Task Force was comprised of 16 members from around the country, including representatives of academia from various social science disciplines; legal practitioners on both the plaintiff and defense side; employers and employee advocacy groups; and organized labor. The Task Force reflected a broad diversity of experience, expertise, and opinion. From April 2015 through June 2016, the Task Force held a series of meetings – some were open to the public, some were closed working sessions, and others were a combination of both. In the course of a year, the Task Force received testimony from more than 30 witnesses, and received numerous public comments.  The Task Force focused on learning everything about workplace harassment – from sociologists, industrial-organizational psychologists, investigators, trainers, lawyers, employers, advocates, and anyone else who had some useful information.

Below is a summary of the Task Force’s key findings.

  • Workplace Harassment Remains a Persistent Problem. Almost fully one third of the approximately 90,000 charges received by EEOC in fiscal year 2015 included an allegation of workplace harassment on the basis of sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy), race, disability, age, ethnicity/national origin, color, and religion.
  • Workplace Harassment Too Often Goes Unreported. Common workplace-based responses by those who experience sex-based harassment are to avoid the harasser, deny or downplay the gravity of the situation, or attempt to ignore, forget, or endure the behavior. The Task Force found that roughly three out of four individuals who experienced harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct.
  • There Is a Compelling Business Case for Stopping and Preventing Harassment. When employers consider the costs of workplace harassment, they often focus on legal costs. In 2015 alone, the EEOC recovered $164.5 million for workers alleging harassment. However, beyond the cost to the company, workplace harassment affects all workers, and its true cost includes decreased productivity, increased turnover, and reputational harm.
  • It Starts at the Top – Leadership and Accountability Are Critical.Workplace culture has the greatest impact on whether harassment occurs or not. An organization must have systems in place (at all levels and across all positions) that holds employees accountable. Accountability systems must ensure that those who engage in harassment are held responsible in a meaningful, appropriate, and proportional manner, and that those whose job it is to prevent or respond to harassment should be rewarded for doing that job well.
  • Training Must Change. Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool – it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability. Training must be part of a holistic culture of non-harassment that starts at the top. Similarly, one size does not fit all: Training is most effective when tailored to the specific workforce and workplace, and to different cohorts of employees. Finally, when trained correctly, middle-managers and first-line supervisors in particular can be an employer’s most valuable resource in preventing and stopping harassment.
  • New and Different Approaches to Training Should Be Explored. The Task Force reviewed several new models of training that may show promise for harassment training. “Bystander intervention training” – increasingly used to combat sexual violence on school campuses – empowers co-workers and gives them the tools to intervene when they witness harassing behavior, and may show promise for harassment prevention. Workplace “civility training” that does not focus on eliminating unwelcome or offensive behavior based on characteristics protected under employment non-discrimination laws, but rather on promoting respect and civility in the workplace generally, likewise may offer solutions.
  • It’s On Us. The Task Force made clear that harassment in the workplace will not stop on its own – it’s on all of us to be part of the fight to stop workplace harassment. For this reason, the Task Force suggests exploring the launch of an “It’s On Us Campaign” for the workplace. Originally developed to reduce sexual violence in educational settings, the “It’s On Us Campaign” is premised on the idea that students, faculty, and campus staff should be empowered to be part of the solution to sexual assault, and should be provided the tools and resources to prevent sexual assault as engaged bystanders. According to the Task Force, while launching a similar campaign in workplaces across the nation – large and small, urban and rural – is an audacious goal, doing so could transform the problem of workplace harassment from being about targets, harassers, and legal compliance, into one in which co-workers, supervisors, clients, and customers all have roles to play in stopping such harassment.

The EEOC Task Force’s final report includes detailed recommendations and a number of helpful tools to aid in designing effective anti-harassment policies; developing training curricula; implementing complaint, reporting, and investigation procedures; creating an organizational culture in which harassment is not tolerated; ensuring employees are held accountable; and assessing and responding to workplace “risk factors” for harassment.

A full copy of the Report can be found at:  https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment/upload/report.pdf