The recent allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein have drawn national attention to the issue of sexual harassment. More than 40 women have come forward and accused Weinstein of harassment, and the LAPD is now investigating Weinstein for sexual assault. Sexual harassment continues to be a problem in the workplace. In fact, the EEOC’s discrimination charge filing statistics for the past three years shows that the number of harassment complaints continue to rise:
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If employers were not motivated to take this issue seriously in the past, they certainly should be now.
With the spotlight on sexual harassment, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) issued a news release, “What You Should Know: What to Do if You Believe You Have Been Harassed at Work.” The news release provides guidelines on how to deal with harassment in the workplace and suggests that the employee check to see if the employer has an anti-harassment policy and to follow the steps in the policy.
The EEOC’s news release is part of its ongoing focus on combatting harassment. In June 2016, the EEOC Select Task Force published its “Report of the Co-Chairs of the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.” The EEOC reported that 40% of women surveyed have experienced sexually based behaviors in the workplace such as unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion, with the incidence rate rising to an astounding 75% when the women surveyed were presented with samples of such behaviors. The Report emphasized the need for leadership to create a healthy work environment:
“Organizational cultures that tolerate harassment have more of it, and workplaces that are not tolerant of harassment have less of it. This common-sense assumption has been demonstrated repeatedly in research studies. If leadership values a workplace free of harassment, then it will ensure that harassing behavior against employees is prohibited as a matter of policy; that swift, effective, and proportionate responses are taken when harassment occurs; and that everyone in the workplace feels safe in reporting harassing behavior. Conversely, leaders who do not model respectful behavior, who are tolerant of demeaning conduct or remarks by others, or who fail to support anti-harassment policies with necessary resources, may foster a culture conducive to harassment.”
Call to Action
In light of the EEOC’s news release and its Task Force Report, employers should expect the EEOC to give special attention to any charge filed with the agency alleging sexual harassment. Perhaps, more now than ever, employers must be proactive and affirmative steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Here are steps that an employer should, at a minimum, take to create a healthy work environment:
- Implement/maintain a sound harassment policy that clearly explains what conduct is prohibited, includes a complaint procedure that allows for alternative avenues to lodge a complaint, states the possible consequences for violating the harassment policy, and prohibits retaliation against individuals who lodge a complaint of harassment or participate in an investigation of a complaint.
- Train employees about the policy and clearly explain what conduct is prohibited and ensure that employees are aware of the reporting systems. Any such training should address the topic of retaliation.
- Document all efforts to prevent harassment.
- Take appropriate disciplinary action when there is a violation of the harassment policy. Failure to do so sends a message to employees that the employer does not take its policy seriously.
Harassment is, has been, and will continue to be a problem that cannot be ignored. With the EEOC’s focus on workplace harassment, and the national attention generated by the allegations of sexual harassment in the news, it is essential for employers to take preventative measures to protect employees and create a positive work environment.