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Many Bases of Discrimination Can Lead to Harassment, Panel of Experts Tells EEOC Task Force

Innovative Uses of Social Media Can Spread Awareness of Problem, Raise Specific Complaints, and Help to Change Social Norms, Practitioners Say

WASHINGTON-The bases of workplace harassment extend beyond sex and race to include age, disability, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, and gender identity, a panel of experts told the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (STF) in a public meeting held yesterday. A second panel told the STF how the creative use of social media can spread an anti-harassment message, especially among millennials, or give a platform for workers to bring complaints to public attention.

The STF was established by EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang in January, 2015, and is co-chaired by EEOC Commissioners Chai R. Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic, with the participation of individuals representing the worlds of academia, law, labor and business. Yesterday featured two different panels-the first, of lawyers representing different constituency groups; the second, of experts in the use of social media to advocate for change.

"Today's witnesses added important testimony to the body of evidence presented to the Select Task Force," said Lipnic. "Harassment can cover many bases in many different workplaces. Equally important, new digital platforms may provide meaningful ways to communicate within workplaces about unacceptable and potentially harassing workplace behaviors." 

With respect to harassment based on disability, the type of harassment often depends on whether the disability is visible, such as quadriplegia, or hidden, such as a psychiatric disability, Lisa Banks, partner in Katz, Marshall & Banks, told the panel. The plaintiff's side lawyer went on to explain that obvious disabilities may give rise to playground type taunts and mocking; while hidden disabilities may result in intrusive medical questions or gossip and innuendo based on myths, fears, and stereotypes.

Zahra Billoo, Executive Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for the San Francisco Bay area, told the task force that for many Muslims, current events have only exacerbated the potential for harassment. Even when harassment is not mocking or name-calling, individuals may feel harassed if they are constantly called on to explain the actions of other Muslims or to explain their religion or religious garb.

Tara Borelli, of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, testified that as more individuals come out in the workplace as a result of marriage equality, they may find themselves the victims of harassment, including epithets and ostracism. Individuals who are transgender, or who are transitioning, face severe harassment, often by co-workers who mock them in front of customers, making it impossible to do their jobs.

Finally, Dan Kohrman of the AARP Foundation Litigation noted that the courts often do not take age-based harassment seriously. Remarks that would be considered creating a hostile environment under other bases such as race tend not to be considered as severe when they involve age. Yet, encountering a daily barrage of negative age-based comments can have the same deleterious effect on older workers as harassment on other bases.

The second panel featured Anne Johnson, Executive Director of Generation Progress of the Center for American Progress, and Jess Kutch, Co-Founder of Both had experiences with using social media to tackle societal issues. Johnson helped develop the "It's on Us" campaign to raise awareness of and change behaviors toward campus sexual assault, including recognizing sexual assault, identifying situations in which it might occur, intervening in situations before it occurs, and creating an environment where sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported. She described how the campaign, which includes a combination of PSA's, a pledge, multi-media toolkits, and deep and ongoing partnerships, could be adapted to other situations, including workplace harassment.

Kutch co-founded, a petition platform that allows workers to post petitions for change in working conditions, which can include bringing to companies' attention instances of harassment that were not treated adequately through usual channels. She posited that this type of mechanism can be used to assure workers that they are not alone in their complaints, if, for example, a number of people post about sexual harassment experiences with one supervisor or at one location of a large corporation.

"The testimony we heard underscores the import of the Select Task Force's work," said Feldblum.  "Unfortunately, harassment in the workplace is not limited to just sexual harassment, but rather, impacts workers from many different backgrounds. Just as "it's on us" to prevent sexual assault on college campuses, it's on us - all of us - to prevent and stop harassment in the workplace, and the EEOC intends to play a critical role in doing so."

Members of the public are encouraged submit comments via the STF's page on the EEOC website.

The EEOC enforces the federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. More information is available at