Combating workplace harassment remains a top priority of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which reported that charges alleging sexual harassment increased by 13.6% from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018. A snapshot of four recent EEOC settlements highlights the need for organizations to also make harassment prevention a priority and move the conversation from awareness to action through effective policies, procedures, training and a commitment by senior management.
EEOC settlements with restaurants
- A restaurant in Orlando’s popular “Restaurant Row,” agreed to pay $80,000 and take other steps to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit charging the restaurant created and encouraged a work environment in which “unwelcome, sexually charged comments and conduct was permissible and commonplace,” the EEOC said. The target of much of the misconduct was a female bartender, who was repeatedly propositioned, asked to go on dates, subjected to sexual innuendo and told to dress “sexy” and “date-ready.” When she complained, the restaurant owner fired her, the EEOC said.
Settlement: In addition to the $80,000 monetary award, the restaurant owner and all employees must participate in anti-harassment training. In addition, the owner is required to develop and distribute a written anti-harassment policy and hire an independent third-party to operate a telephone hotline for employees to report incidents of discrimination and harassment.
- In another case, a chain of breakfast franchises in Nevada and New York agreed to pay $700,000 to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit, which alleged that female employees were targets of ongoing sexual harassment by supervisors, managers and co-workers. The harassing behavior included groping, vulgar comments, propositions for sex, viewing pornography and unwanted touching and kissing. Rather than take action to correct the abusive behavior, the management company retaliated against the individuals who complained by reducing their work hours and then firing them.
Settlement: In addition to paying $700,000 to a class of female employees, the management company will provide anti-harassment and civility training to management officials and eliminate a policy that required harassment complaints to be made to the corporate office in writing within 72 hours. This policy, the EEOC said, deters individuals from reporting incidents of harassment and removes the responsibility of local managers and supervisors to address misconduct when they become aware of it. The company is also required to establish an HR department, hire an outside monitor and create performance review standards for compliance with Title VII.
EEOC settlements with manufacturing/industrial companies
- A general contractor will pay two former female employees $70,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit, charging a supervisor subjected them to sexual harassment, assault and retaliation. According to the EEOC, a supervisor at a car manufacturing plant in Alabama demanded sexual favors from two non-English speaking Hispanic female employees and watched pornographic videos in front of them. The agency also charged that the supervisor sexually assaulted one of the employees and subsequently taunted her, asking whether she “liked it.” The supervisor threatened to fire the women and their husbands, who were also employees, if they reported him for harassment. When one of the employees refused his sexual advances, the supervisor terminated her.
Settlement: In addition to the $70,000 in monetary relief, the company must take a number of steps to prevent future behavior that is unlawful under Title VII. These include conducting annual anti-discrimination training for all supervisors, managers and other employees, with an emphasis on harassment, revising policies and issuing a written statement to employees that communicates its commitment to preventing workplace harassment.
- A fish processing company and its staffing agency agreed to pay $675,000 to settle a lawsuit charging that women at one of the company’s facilities were targets of ongoing sexual harassment by male managers, line supervisors and co-workers. The behavior included unwanted touching, solicitations for sex and crude comments about female workers’ bodies. Despite knowing about the pervasive harassment, neither company took action to stop it or punish the harassers, the EEOC said. In addition, two of the women were fired after they filed charges of discrimination.
Settlement: In addition to the $675,000 settlement, both companies must create or revise policies prohibiting sex discrimination, including harassment and retaliation, and provide training to managers and workers, in both English and Spanish.
In a press release announcing one of the settlements, an EEOC director said, “Employers should remember that they are responsible for creating an environment free of harassment.” That responsibility includes a strong anti-harassment message and actions from management, policies that explain reporting procedures and protections from retaliation and training. In its task force on workplace harassment, the EEOC said that regular, interactive training that is tailored to the organization and its workforce is an essential step in effectively addressing and preventing workplace harassment. Together, these steps can go a long way in helping to move the #MeToo conversation from awareness to action.