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PRESS RELEASE
6-20-16

Task Force Co-Chairs Call On Employers and Others to “Reboot” Harassment Prevention

WASHINGTON - Two Commissioners of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Co-Chairs of a Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, called on stakeholders to double down and "reboot" workplace harassment prevention efforts at a meeting of the EEOC in Washington today. Commissioners Chai R. Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic highlighted for their fellow Commissioners the key findings and recommendations of a report they developed after 14 months of study of workplace harassment with the Select Task Force.

Convened in 2015, the Select Task Force was comprised of 16 members from around the country, including representatives of academia from various social science disciplines, legal practitioners on both the plaintiff and defense side, employers and employee advocacy groups, and organized labor.

"I thank Commissioners Feldbum and Lipnic and the members of the Select Task Force for their work to combat the persistent problem of workplace harassment," said EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang. "Preventing harassment from occurring in the first place is far preferable to remedying its consequences."

More than 30 years after the U.S. Supreme Court held in Meritor Savings Back v. Vinson that harassment was a form of unlawful discrimination, workplace harassment remains an all-too persistent problem, Feldblum and Lipnic told their colleagues. Indeed, as the report noted, almost one-third of the roughly 90,000 charges filed with EEOC in FY 2015 included an allegation of harassment.

Too much of the effort and training to prevent workplace harassment over the last 30 years has been ineffective and focused on simply avoiding legal liability, explained Lipnic. "In simplest terms, training must change." She went on, "That does not mean we are suggesting that training be thrown out; far from it - but training needs to be part of a holistic, committed effort to combat harassment, focused on the specific culture and needs of a particular workplace." Merely having effective reporting and response systems in place is also not enough, she cautioned, if employees fail to use them for fear of subsequent retaliation. "Above all, employees must have faith in the system," she noted.

Feldblum set forth the report's recommendation that employers explore new types of training to prevent harassment, including workplace civility and bystander intervention training. "Bystander intervention training can create a sense of collective responsibility on the part of workers and empower them to be engaged bystanders in preventing harassment," she explained. "With leadership support, bystander intervention training could be a game changer in the workplace." Feldblum also set forth the "audacious goal" of exploring an "It's on Us" campaign in the workplace, similar to the campaign that encourages bystanders to prevent sexual assault on campuses.

The report includes detailed recommendations for harassment prevention, including a chart of risk factors that may permit harassment to occur; effective policies and procedures to reduce and eliminate harassment; recommendations for future research and funding; and targeted outreach. In addition, it offers a toolkit of compliance assistance measures for employers and other stakeholders.

Several witnesses, including Members of the Select Task Force, applauded the report. "The report adds tremendous value," testified Rae T. Vann, General Counsel of the Equal Employment Advisory Council and a Select Task Force member, "by examining the efficacy of conventional prevention efforts, and offering several 'promising practices' aimed to curb this all-too-persistent problem." Select Task Force member and Cohen Milstein partner Joseph M. Sellers praised the report's identification of "risk factors" for harassment, explaining, "I believe that conditions which heighten the potential for workplace harassment, whether or not actionable harassment is claimed or proved, are just as worthy of attention as occasions where harassment is demonstrated to have occurred."

Professor Lilia Cortina supported the research recommendations in the report. "I hope the work of this Task Force spurs a change in the funding landscape surrounding harassment," she said. "With better data on these problems, organizations will be in better equipped to combat them." Fran Sepler, a workplace trainer and investigator, concurred with the report's focus on accountability, noting, "I emphatically believe that middle managers are where the rubber hits the road in setting tone, recognizing problems as they develop and responding with urgency and empathy."

Contonius Gill, a truck driver from North Carolina, began the meeting by provided compelling testimony to the Commission, underscoring the fact that bedrock racial harassment, including repetitive use of the "n-word" and the showing of nooses, continues to be far too common a problem.

The Report of the Co-Chairs of the Select Task Force on Harassment in the Workplace, witness statements, and an executive summary of the report, can be found on the agency's website at https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/meetings/6-20-16/index.cfm.

The Commission will hold open the meeting record for 15 days, and invites audience members, as well as other members of the public, to submit written comments on any issues or matters discussed at the meeting. Public comments may be mailed to Commission Meeting, EEOC Executive Officer, 131 M Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20507, or emailed to: Commissionmeetingcomments@eeoc.gov.

The public comments submitted will be made available to members of the Commission and to Commission staff working on the matters discussed at the meeting. In addition, comments may be publicly disclosed on the EEOC's public website, in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, or in the Commission's library. By providing public comments in response to this solicitation, commenters are consenting to their use and consideration by the Commission and to their public dissemination. Accordingly, commenters should not include any information in submitted comments that they would not want made public, e.g., home address, telephone number, etc. Also note that when comments are submitted by e-mail, the sender's e-mail address automatically appears on the message.

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