Sending a clear message that preventing workplace harassment remains a priority, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently announced seven lawsuits against employers across the country, charging them with various forms of harassment.
In a press release, EEOC Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic said that recent high-profile allegations demonstrate how systematic harassment in the workplace affects individuals’ careers and livelihoods for years. “There are many consequences that flow from harassment not being addressed in our nation’s workplaces,” Lipnic said. “These suits filed by the EEOC around the country are a reminder that a federal enforcement action by the EEOC is potentially one of those consequences.”
This multi-state action by the EEOC follows a meeting that reconvened its Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. The Task Force met on June 19 to examine workplace harassment in light of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and to discuss what steps organizations are taking to better address and stop harassment.
The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate or harass an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.
Here is a summary of the seven lawsuits:
Racial and same-sex sexual harassment
A Gulf Coast shipbuilder is being charged for racial and same-sex sexual harassment. The EEOC said the company did not stop one of its lead welders from sexually and racially harassing a male Asian-American welder at its headquarters. According to the lawsuit, a supervisor repeatedly referred to the welder in racially derogatory terms, including making insensitive remarks regarding the victim’s Asian heritage. The suit also alleges that the supervisor repeatedly made unwanted sexual comments and inappropriately touched the welder.
The EEOC also charged that the harasser discriminated against three black employees by subjecting them to racial harassment, using slurs, derogatory terms and insults.
Unwelcome sexual comments and touching
A staffing service is being sued for allowing a group of female employees to be the target of sexual harassment in the workplace. The EEOC said that the women were subjected to pervasive unwelcome sexual comments and slurs, and unwelcome touching.
Physical and verbal sexual harassment
A company that manufactures outdoor screening is being sued for subjecting a female worker to unwelcome physical and verbal sexual harassment in the workplace by her production manager and another corporate officer.
The EEOC alleges that the female employee, who was ordinarily a worker in the fabrication of screen doors, was told by the production manager to clean the restrooms in the facility. The manager then followed her into both the men’s and women’s restrooms while making sexual comments and attempting to force himself on her. The EEOC said that the vice president of the company also made graphic, intimidating sexual comments to her.
Verbal abuse and threats
A large trucking company is being sued for failing to prevent verbal abuse and threats against a female truck driver. According to the EEOC, the company knew that one of its independent contractor drivers had sexually harassed at least one female driver trainee. The EEOC said the company stopped using the harasser as a trainer, but allowed him to continue driving for the company and continued providing him with employees to work as co-drivers.
The agency said that when the harasser asked a new female driver to work as his co-driver, the company allowed the match but did not warn the woman about the harasser’s past misconduct or warn him that he must not harass her while she worked as his co-driver. The harasser verbally harassed the woman for the six weeks they drove together, and he told her she would lose her job and commercial driver’s license if she reported his behavior, the EEOC alleged.
Verbal and physical sexual harassment and retaliation
A printing, mailing and fulfillment company allegedly subjected female workers to ongoing verbal and physical sexual harassment and then retaliated against those who complained about the abusive conduct.
The EEOC said a supervisor rubbed the backs of female employees while making comments about their underclothes and “accidentally” grazed their breasts with his elbows while they were working at the printing machines. In addition to physical harassment, the EEOC charged that employees were subjected to verbal harassment, including slurs, derogatory slang for women and were called useless, stupid and ignorant. The company did nothing to stop this abuse, the EEOC said, and individuals who reported the misconduct were subjected to harassment and retaliation.
Sexual harassment and constructive discharge
A milk tea and snack franchise, and two of its franchisees, have been charged with violating federal law by subjecting female employees to sexual harassment and forcing some to quit because of the abuse. Constructive discharge claims occur when an employer makes the work environment so intolerable that a reasonable person would not be able to stay and the employee is forced to resign.
The EEOC said the owner of two franchisees harassed female employees by inappropriately touching them and making repeated comments of a sexual nature. The EEOC said that the owner wrapped his arms around women, physically pressed up against them, and made inappropriate comments about body attributes. As a result of the escalating sexual harassment, some female employees felt compelled to quit.
The EEOC further charged that all three related defendant companies failed to prevent and correct the harassing behavior in spite of multiple complaints.
Hostile work environment
A commercial cleaning and construction clean-up company is being sued for subjecting an employee to a sexually hostile work environment. According to the EEOC’s suit, the company owner forced the employee to endure unwanted touching, sexual comments, overtures and ogling.
In addition, the lawsuit alleges that he hugged her, made sexual comments about her body and repeatedly called her at night at her home after work hours suggesting that they have a sexual relationship. After complaining repeatedly about the sexually hostile work environment, the employee was subsequently fired in retaliation for her complaints, the EEOC said.
3 out of 4 who experience harassment in the workplace never report it
In announcing the lawsuits, Acting Chair Lipnic said that workplace harassment has been the subject of about 25% of the EEOC’s charges filed in recent years. Almost one-third of the 80,000 to 90,000 discrimination charges the agency receives each year include an allegation of harassment.
However, this is just the tip of the iceberg, she said. Studies show that more than 80% of individuals who experience harassment never file a formal complaint. Nearly three out of four individuals who experience harassment never even raise the issue internally.
These seven multi-state lawsuits illustrate the EEOC’s continuing focus on enforcing the law to prevent workplace harassment, and holding managers, supervisors and company leaders accountable for ensuring that their workplaces are free of harassment and other unlawful behavior.
Requiring that all employees – including managers, supervisors and senior executives – participate in preventing harassment training is an important step in promoting a healthy, inclusive workplace and raising awareness about what harassment is, what different forms it takes and the consequences for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In addition, training is a valuable tool for reinforcing your anti-harassment/anti-retaliation policies and explaining your reporting procedures so that employees in all locations know what to do to report incidents of harassment, whether they are targets or observers.