Employers have a legal obligation to maintain a workplace that is free of sexual harassment. If you allow your employees to work in a hostile environment where they experience or witness aggressive, unwanted sexual advances, or they have to endure sexually suggestive jokes and behaviors, you are violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Many states also have their own specific workplace sexual harassment laws as well.
But even if you do manage to escape legal consequences for this behavior in your organization, it is not only ethically wrong, but also bad for business. Companies with high rates of workplace sexual harassment often suffer from low morale, poor productivity, and expensive lawsuits.
And make no mistake. If you’re the boss, it’s your responsibility to make sure your employees have a safe place to work. You set the tone. It is every employer’s job to send the message that workplace sexual harassment will not be tolerated on their watch.
Until recently, however, far too many employers have overlooked this part of their jobs. Many people were in denial about both the frequency and seriousness of sexual harassment. And a lot of victims seemed to have accepted it as a part of their lives they couldn’t escape.
The EEOC filed 41 sexual harassment lawsuits in FY 2018, which is a 50 percent increase over FY 2017.
Then, just over one year ago, a hashtag spread through Twitter, mass media, and the public conscience. #Metoo changed the national conversation in an extraordinary way. Activist Tarana Burke began using the phrase in 2006 after feeling as though she’d failed to properly respond to a 13-year-old rape victim. According to Burke, she wished she’d simply said, “Me too.”
But it wasn’t until October 2017, when actress Alyssa Milano encouraged fans to begin using it as a hashtag, that #metoo truly caught on.
Let’s take a look at the history of the #metoo movement, along with some steps that the government and private employers are taking to help root out and stop workplace sexual harassment– and sexual harassment in general.
#MeToo Starts a Movement
It was an attempt to show empathy and strength in numbers. Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had recently been accused of sexual misconduct many times over. Many women responded to the news about Weinstein with knowing nods and silent assent. But some people reacted with doubt. How could a man harass and assault so many seemingly powerful women and get away with it for decades? Why would women put up with this?
And so the hashtag was born. Millions of women and even some men shared their stories of sexual harassment and assault. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 3 women are victims of sexual violence. And a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 54 percent of women have received unwanted sexual advances.
Ninety-five percent of those women say that the behavior never gets punished. But the problem wasn’t publicly discussed, and far too many people still believed it was rare. #Metoo changed all that.
Thanks to all of the brave victims who shared their stories, the country was forced to publicly acknowledge that sexual assault and harassment are widespread problems. Nearly every American knows at least one person who has lived through it.
Out of the complaints in which an employee alleged sexual harassment, the EEOC found reasonable cause in nearly 1,200 cases, a 26.3 percent increase from FY 2017.
Empowered by stories from other survivors, people are becoming more assertive in reporting sexual harassment, especially at work. And employers are paying increased attention to sexually aggressive behavior in the workplace. Some companies have stepped up harassment training efforts. Some states, including New York, have also addressed the issue with new laws and regulations.
On the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) has increased its efforts to enforce the laws prohibiting such behavior. Last month, the agency released a report detailing their efforts and results for FY 2018.
EEOC Report Findings
Though the EEOC has long been the enforcer of employment anti-discrimination laws, the #metoo movement has brought more urgency to the issue. Over the last year, the agency re-focused efforts on its role as enforcer, educator, and leader. They implemented new procedures, aiming to prevent workplace sexual harassment before it becomes legally actionable. They also wanted to encourage people to come forward if they experienced or witnessed harassment and to hold employers accountable for that behavior.
Here are the results:
- The EEOC conducted more than 1,000 outreach events for over 115,000 employees and employers.
- They developed new trainings and materials to teach people what to do if they are being harassed, and to teach employers how to prevent and respond to workplace harassment.
- They also reconvened a select task force and held a public meeting to share new and innovative strategies in preventing and reporting harassment. Some new and improved strategies include app-based reporting, color-coded reporting, and panic buttons for hotel staff.
- As a result of this increased outreach, hits to the harassment page on the EEOC’s website have doubled over the past year. It appears that more people are searching for information on preventing and reporting workplace sexual harassment.
- The EEOC filed 41 sexual harassment lawsuits in FY 2018, which is a 50 percent increase over FY 2017.
- The employees whom the EEOC represented in these lawsuits came from a wide range of fields. Some of the victims were nurses, servers, customer service staff, truck drivers, and welders. Others worked at country clubs, cleaners, airlines, sports bars, factories, or grocery stores.
- When you consider all charges of sexual harassment that the EEOC received, including those that didn’t result in lawsuits, those reports increased by 13.6 percent over FY 2017.
- Out of the complaints in which an employee alleged sexual harassment, the EEOC found reasonable cause in nearly 1,200 cases. That’s a 26.3 percent increase from FY 2017.
- The EEOC has also launched trainings that teach bystanders how to intervene when they witness sexual harassment in the workplace. They’ve conducted this training for many organizations, including some committees of the US House of Representatives and several state legislatures.
The Future of Sexual Harassment Prevention and Reporting
Though the EEOC report shows an impressive list of accomplishments, the agency acknowledges that the country has a long way to go when it comes to workplace sexual harassment in the workplace.
For their part, the EEOC has pledged to:
- Implement new training for all EEOC investigators that uses cognitive interviewing for victims of sexual harassment. Cognitive interviewing is the questioning technique that police investigators find most favorable. It is intended to improve the ability of victims and witnesses to retrieve information from their memories.
- Begin an outreach campaign to encourage victims and witnesses of harassment to report.
- Provide their community trainings to all EEOC staff. The EEOC wants to lead by example, showing the community that they use the same techniques to prevent sexual harassment in their own workplace.
What can employers do?
Employers must also do their part to prevent sexual harassment and encourage victims and witnesses to report offensive behaviors. Here are a few suggestions for steps you can take in your organization.
- Know what sexual harassment is. Before #metoo, it seemed that the majority of Americans simply didn’t understand what it was. Sexual harassment is defined as any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct at work that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. In other words, if it’s sexual and it makes someone uncomfortable, it could be sexual harassment.
- Adopt a clear policy. Include a detailed policy in your employee handbook that includes the definition of workplace sexual harassment and makes clear that you will not tolerate it in your organization. It should also set out clear reporting, investigating, and disciplinary procedures.
- Train your employees and supervisors to recognize and report sexual harassment. When someone reports an incident to you, listen intently and take it seriously. And make sure your employees know that you will not tolerate any retaliation against an employee for making a report.
- Engage with your staff. Sexual harassment is something that happens in the course of doing business, not at annual trainings. You need to get out there and talk to people regularly. Know what’s going on with your employees. If you see or hear someone behaving in an intimidating way, or if it appears that an employee feels uncomfortable or offended, step in immediately.
As an employer, you have a legal obligation to maintain a safe workplace. Your staff has a right to come to work without fearing sexual harassment. But notwithstanding the legal implications, preventing sexual harassment makes good business sense.
We encourage all employers to take the necessary steps to root out and stop sexual harassment in their organizations.