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EEOC Task Force on Workplace Harassment Reconvenes in Light of #MeToo

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Nearly a year and a half before the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal exploded, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a report on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.

The report, which offered recommendations regarding training, policies and procedures, leadership, accountability and workplace culture, was the result of a Select Task Force comprising EEOC commissioners and representatives from academia and social science, labor and employment law and advocacy groups, who investigated the persistent problem of workplace harassment.

In the aftermath of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and a “cultural awakening,” the task force members recently reconvened to hear the views of experts on “Transforming #MeToo Into Harassment-Free Workplaces.” The meeting was open to the public.

”A wave of revelations about sexual harassment has been essential in raising awareness,” said Chai Feldblum, EEOC Commissioner and Task Force Co-Chair. “But shame on us if we don’t use this opportunity to change the structures and cultures of our workplaces so that people do not experience harassment based on any protected characteristic — including race, national origin, disability, religion, age, sexual orientation or gender identity.”

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“Training must change”
In her opening statement, Acting EEOC Chair Victoria Lipnic reiterated the report’s conclusion that harassment training must change and move away from focusing on avoiding legal liability to preventing workplace harassment and promoting respect, civility and diversity and bystander intervention.

The concept of bystander intervention began on college campuses as part of sexual assault prevention programs. Today, more employers are looking to bystander intervention training to provide workers with the skills they need to speak up, intervene and report workplace harassment when they see it – all essential steps in stopping inappropriate behavior before it rises to the level of workplace harassment, and preventing future incidents.

Civility training is designed to address the increase of rude, abusive behavior in the workplace, which can escalate into illegal harassment if not kept in check. Commissioner Feldblum said that civility training is an effective way to discuss what a respectful, diverse workplace means, and provide employees and supervisors with realistic examples of appropriate behavior, as well as inappropriate conduct – both verbal and physical.

#MeToo spurs states to strengthen sexual harassment laws

During the meeting, task force members and subject matter experts also discussed a range of other issues that have arisen since the #MeToo movement.  Among them: non-disclosure and arbitration agreements, training mandates and proposals for legal reform from state legislatures and industry groups to address sexual harassment in the workplace.

Suzanne Hultin, program director with the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization that provides research and professional development for legislators and legislative staff, testified at the meeting that at least 20 states have introduced workplace sexual harassment legislation in 2018 and it will continue to be a priority in 2019.  

At least 16 states have introduced legislation to limit or prohibit non-disclosure agreements or end forced arbitration agreements. So far this year, Arizona, Maryland, New York, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington have enacted legislation on non-disclosure agreements.

Other experts who spoke at the meeting were:

  • Elizabeth Tippett, University of Oregon School of Law
  • Debra Katz, Katz, Marshall & Banks
  • Kathleen McKenna, Proskauer Rose
  • Jill Geisler, Power Shift Project, Freedom Forum Institute
  • Kasey Nalls, UNITEHERE
  • Erin Wade, Homeroom Mac & Cheese
  • Jess Ladd, Callisto
  • Lisa Gelobter, tEQuitable

The statements of the Task Force co-chairs and expert witnesses are available at: https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment/6-11-18.cfm

Traliant Insight
The EEOC recently reconvened its Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace to emphasize their intention to continue to lead the fight against workplace harassment since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. They also used the opportunity to hear from legal scholars and attorneys who represent workers and employers on a range of issues, including non-disclosure and arbitration agreements, and new sexual harassment laws that dozens of states are introducing and enacting.

While there are signs of progress since 2016 when the task force issued its report, the EEOC made it clear that sexual harassment and other forms of harassment are not going away.  To begin to make positive changes, organizations first need the support of senior leadership, along with the resources to develop a holistic harassment prevention strategy. This includes implementing harassment training that is relevant to today’s diverse workforce and focuses on raising awareness and influencing employees’ behavior and attitudes, rather than avoiding legal liability. To be effective, workplace harassment training should be something that all employees, at every level and location participate in and connect with. Creating and sustaining a positive, respectful, harassment-free culture needs the contributions of everyone.

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