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Jan. 14 — The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is forming an agency task force on workplace harassment and might update its guidance on preventing such behavior as it strives to address a persistent problem of U.S. workers experiencing abuse because of their sex, race, national origin or other protected characteristics, EEOC Chair Jenny Yang said Jan. 14.
Speaking at a wide-ranging EEOC public meeting, Yang said although some progress has been made on addressing workplace harassment, much remains to be done. In fiscal year 2014, about 30 percent of all EEOC charges included a harassment claim, she said.
Despite the diligent efforts of the EEOC, most employers and other agency stakeholders, the agency continues to see cases of overt, egregious and sometimes violent workplace harassment of women, racial minorities and other individuals in protected categories, according to Yang and her fellow commissioners.
Cases arise in all industries and types of jobs, but employers in health care, retail, manufacturing and hotels and restaurants are the most frequently cited in EEOC charges, witnesses said at the hearing. Migrant workers and women working in low-wage or non-traditional jobs are at particular risk, the witnesses said.
The EEOC meeting kicks off a broader effort to review what has worked and what more is needed to prevent and remedy harassment, Yang said. The task force, co-chaired by Commissioners Chai Feldblum (D) and Victoria Lipnic (R), will consult with practitioners inside and outside the EEOC to identify effective strategies for preventing and addressing unlawful harassment, Yang said.
The Jan. 14 hearing was the first EEOC public meeting led by Yang, who was appointed the agency's chair last September. It also marked the EEOC debut of Charlotte Burrows (D), a former Justice Department official sworn in as an EEOC commissioner Jan. 13, after receiving Senate confirmation last month.
Lipnic, who has served at EEOC since 2010, said she was “stunned” on her arrival by the number of harassment complaints the EEOC receives each year.
Workers need to be empowered and know they have an outlet to report harassment, Lipnic said. Among the questions the EEOC and others need to be asking is how to prevent harassment in the first place and how to “essentially make a cultural change” so harassment isn't tolerated and workers don't fear that if they raise the issue, they'll be fired, Lipnic said.
Most employers want to eliminate and prevent harassment, said Patricia Wise, a partner with Niehaus Wise & Kalas Ltd. in Toledo, Ohio, who co-chairs a Society for Human Resource Management labor relations panel.
She said to be effective, an employer's anti-harassment training must cover all employees, and it must include the visible presence of the chief executive officer.
Employers need to have an anti-harassment policy that works, which means it must include more than one person to whom an employee can complain and it must clearly identify individuals with the expertise to investigate claims, Wise said.
Effective investigations, either by an in-house designee or an outside individual, are a must, Wise said. The goal is to eliminate harassment immediately, so an investigator must be empowered to remove the harasser from the workplace, she said.
Most employers would welcome the EEOC's “collaboration in the workplace” on anti-harassment efforts, Wise said. Small employers in particular would “really appreciate” sample anti-harassment policies or other documents developed by the EEOC to aid them, she said.
The EEOC also should be aware of workplace harassment occurring on social media and a rising tide of harassment against workers with disabilities, said Jane Kow, an employment lawyer with HR Law Consultants in San Francisco.
The EEOC already has litigated some cases that involved social media, including a $2.3 million settlement with retailer Fry Electronics Inc. in a sexual harassment and retaliation case stemming from text messages sent by an assistant manager to an underage sales associate, Kow said.
A California state jury returned an $82,000 verdict for a disabled worker who repeatedly was derided by co-workers as “claw hand” in blog posts, Kow noted.
More such cases are coming and they raise novel issues, such as whether an employer may be liable for harassment by an employee using his personal device, Kow said.
Disability harassment claims have “really spiked” in the past decade, as California reported a 75 percent rise in such claims, Kow said.
She advised employers to include disability in their anti-harassment training, including discussion of the duties to make reasonable accommodations and not to harass employees because they receive accommodation.
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