Sexual Harassment Still Ranks High on EEOC’s Radar

Stop Sexual Harassment red stop sign held by a female

Sexual harassment claims remain all too common on the evening news and in courts across the nation. From recent allegations against on-demand driving giant Uber to jewelry stores Kay and Jared, the stories are hard to miss.

Despite the fact that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act long ago declared harassment illegal, it nevertheless persists in too many workplaces of today. In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that harassment claims have increased and now make up almost one-third of all EEOC charges. Thus, the EEOC views harassment as a Strategic Enforcement Priority.

What’s more, the EEOC is seeking to add teeth to its harassment guidance. Based on the proposed guidance, here are some tips and strategies for preventing and addressing harassment.

Recognize the Broad Scope of Harassment

The EEOC uses a broad definition of harassment that goes beyond Title VII, as it may be based not only on sex (and sex stereotyping) but various other protected class statuses, including race, color, national origin, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information and pregnancy.

Harassment may also occur between members of the same protected class. And, the EEOC notes, an employer may also be liable for harassment based on:

• Perceived membership in a protected class (even if ultimately incorrect);
• Association with individuals who have a protected characteristic;
• Alleged harassment that was not directed at the complainant,
• Harassment on social media networks;
• The intersection of two or more protected characteristics (female and Asian); or
• Where the identity of the harasser is unknown and/or anonymous.

Have Management Lead by Example

Commitment from upper management and senior leaders to eradicating harassment in the organization is essential to creating and maintaining a culture of respect with zero tolerance for harassment.

Management needs to ensure that there are sufficient resources to undertake effective harassment prevention strategies such as policy implementation and training. Leaders also need to assess any factors that increase the risk for harassment and work to minimize or eliminate such risk.

Develop and Enforce a Harassment Policy

It is critical to develop, communicate and enforce a written antiharassment policy and provide examples of lawful and unlawful conduct. The policy should Include a multichannel complaint procedure permitting individuals to bring complaints to various member of management and encouraging reporting of questionable conduct. Further, the policy should state that the employer will promptly and thoroughly investigate the allegations and take immediate and proportionate action if it determines that harassment has occurred. The policy should also provide that all information obtained during the investigation will be kept confidential and the complainant will not be retaliated against.

Implement a Multichannel Harassment Complaint Procedure

It is critical to implement an effective multichannel complaint procedure encouraging supervisors and employees to report harassing conduct and allowing complaints to be brought to various members of management. The complaint procedure should:

• Promise claims will be investigated and that appropriate discipline will be imposed for misconduct;
• Ensure that the complainant’s privacy will be protected and they will not be retaliated against; and
• Be translated into all languages commonly spoken in the employer’s workplace.

Investigators should be trained, objective and neutral and each step of the investigation process should be documented from the intake of the complaint, to the scope of the investigation, to the resolution. A written report should also detail the investigation, findings, recommendations and any disciplinary, corrective or preventative actions taken.

Provide Harassment Training

It is critical to provide antiharassment training that is comprehensive, regular and interactive. The training should be:

• Supported by senior leaders;
• Provided at all levels and locations of the organization;
• Regularly reinforced;
• Tailored to each specific workplace; and
• Evaluated and amended on a routine basis.

Supervisors and managers should receive additional training on how to identify, stop, report and correct harassment and avoid retaliation and must understand that failing to do so may result in liability.

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