In spite of the distractions and myriad of changes imposed by COVID-19, the EEOC continues to enforce laws against sexual harassment, discrimination and other misconduct in the workplace.
As we noted in a recent post, Asian-Americans, healthcare workers and others have become targets of harassment and discrimination. EEOC Chair Janet Dhillon is urging employers and employees to be aware of COVID-related instances of harassment, intimidation or discrimination and to take action to prevent or correct this behavior.
A look at some recent EEOC lawsuits underscores the federal agency’s focus on combating all forms of workplace harassment and discrimination, and training’s role in teaching the right behaviors and promoting a respectful, inclusive workplace.
Sexual harassment of resort employees
Two resorts in Washington State have agreed to pay $570,000 to a group of former female employees and provide other relief to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit. The owner of the resorts, the EEOC said, subjected the women to sexual comments and propositions, and inappropriate touching and groping. Further, the company failed to stop the harassment despite repeated complaints to various members of human resources and management.
In addition to the monetary settlement, the company must implement policies and training to prevent discrimination and harassment, engage a consultant to investigate any complaints of harassment or retaliation, and provide individual training for the owner and general manager.
The EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace 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.
Sexual harassment and retaliation of female servers and hostesses
A casual-dining restaurant will pay $150,000 and take other measures to settle an EEOC lawsuit charging sex-based harassment and retaliation against five female servers and hostesses. The sexual harassment conduct included pervasive sexual comments and innuendoes over three years. Further, the EEOC said, the restaurant did not act to prevent or correct the behavior when employees complained, and that some women who couldn’t tolerate the harassment were forced to resign. The EEOC also alleged that management retaliated against some of the employees who complained about the harassment, by reducing their hours.
In addition to paying the five women a portion of the settlement, the restaurant must train all employees, managers and supervisors on preventing workplace harassment and discrimination. Training for managers will focus on sex discrimination and retaliation, as well as proper methods for handling employee complaints.
Workplace retaliation is a persistent problem and the most common charge filed with the EEOC. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employees are protected from retaliation for making a good-faith complaint of harassment or discrimination or participating in an investigation. Retaliation can take different forms, including firing, demoting, reassigning jobs or shifts, harassment or other negative consequences.
Hostile work environment and retaliation against female employee
Another recent EEOC lawsuit alleges a female employee of a special events company was subjected to a hostile work environment based on her sex, and then fired for complaining about the harassment to management. The owner of the company repeatedly subjected the employee to comments that were demeaning to women, including sexual comments and other gender-based comments such as women are “worthless because they have kids” and references to female staff as “little girls.” After complaining to human resources, the company fired the employee in retaliation for her complaints, the EEOC charged.
Hostile work environment is a form of harassment in which unwelcome sexual conduct “unreasonably interferes with an individual’s job performance” or creates an “intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.” Hostile work environment harassment generally includes physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature, such as comments, unwelcome touching, requests for sexual favors or displaying sexual images either in print or digitally.
National origin discrimination and retaliation against Filipino workers
A grapevine nursery agreed to pay $237,500 to settle a lawsuit alleging they failed to re-hire a group of Filipino seasonal farm workers, some long-term employees, in retaliation for complaining about national origin/race discrimination. The company will also take measures to prevent workplace discrimination and retaliation. These include reviewing and updating policies and procedures, and providing training to employees and managers on anti-discrimination laws with an emphasis on retaliation.
National origin discrimination involves treating people unfavorably because they are from a particular country or part of the world, they are or appear to be of a particular ethnicity or ethnic background, or they speak with an accent.
A snapshot of four recent EEOC lawsuits highlights the need to remain vigilant in preventing sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation. With leadership setting the right tone and example, and clear and consistent policies and procedures, a modern harassment training program is an important step in reinforcing positive behaviors and improving workplace culture during these unprecedented times and beyond.