EEOC calls for urgent action after roughly 30,000 charges in 2015 included allegations of workplace harassment

Woman yelling into a bullhorn on an urban street

In June 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) called for a “reboot of workplace harassment efforts” after approximately 30,000 charges filed with the EEOC in 2015 included allegations of workplace harassment.

A task force presented the Report of the Co-Chairs of the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. “We present this report with a firm, and confirmed, belief that too many people in too many workplaces find themselves in unacceptably harassing situations when they are simply trying to do their jobs,” says the EEOC website.

The urgent need is clear: workers are suffering from unwelcome harassment, and the EEOC finally and formally recognizes this problem. The time to “shift cultures towards more respect and fair treatment for all employees” is now.

The task force finds that:

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. This includes, among other things, charges of unlawful harassment on the basis of sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy), race, disability, age, ethnicity/national origin, color, and religion. While there is robust data and academic literature on sex-based harassment, there is very limited data regarding harassment on other protected bases. More research is needed.

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 least common response to harassment is to take some formal action – either to report the harassment internally or file a formal legal complaint. Roughly three out of four individuals who experienced harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct. Employees who experience harassment fail to report the harassing behavior or to file a complaint because they fear disbelief of their claim, inaction on their claim, blame, or social or professional retaliation.

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, and with good reason. Last year, EEOC alone recovered $164.5 million for workers alleging harassment – and these direct costs are just the tip of the iceberg. Workplace harassment first and foremost comes at a steep cost to those who suffer it, as they experience mental, physical, and economic harm. Beyond that, workplace harassment affects all workers, and its true cost includes decreased productivity, increased turnover, and reputational harm. All of this is a drag on performance – and the bottom-line.

It Starts at the Top – Leadership and Accountability Are Critical. Workplace culture has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish, or conversely, in preventing harassment. The importance of leadership cannot be overstated – effective harassment prevention efforts, and workplace culture in which harassment is not tolerated, must start with and involve the highest level of management of the company. But a commitment (even from the top) to a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace is not enough. Rather, at all levels, across all positions, an organization must have systems in place that hold employees accountable for this expectation. 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 (or penalized for failing to do so). Finally, leadership means ensuring that anti-harassment efforts are given the necessary time and resources to be effective.

Read a synopsis of the Task Force findings from SCORE in the article “Workplace harassment training more urgently needed than ever, says EEOC Task Force.”

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