Best Practices for Preventing Workplace Harassment

Sexual-harassment-02A new report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) highlights best practices for employers to prevent and respond to workplace harassment.
Harassment Defined
Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The EEOC defines harassment as unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.

Harassment becomes unlawful where enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

Best Practices
According to the EEOC report, employers should:

  • Foster an organizational culture in which harassment is not tolerated;
  • Adopt and maintain a comprehensive anti-harassment policy (which prohibits harassment based on any protected characteristic, and which includes social media considerations) and establish procedures consistent with the best practices outlined in the report;
  • Ensure that any such anti-harassment policy–especially details about how to complain of harassment and how to report observed harassment–is frequently communicated to employees, in a variety of forms and methods;
  • Ensure that where harassment is found to have occurred, discipline is prompt and proportionate to the severity of the infraction. Discipline should be consistent, and not give (or create the appearance of) undue favor to any particular employee; and
  • Dedicate sufficient resources to training middle-management and first-line supervisors on how to respond effectively to harassment that they observe, that is reported to them, or of which they have knowledge or information–even before such harassment reaches a legally-actionable level.

Note: Employers may have specific obligations regarding harassment under state or local laws (e.g., training or notice requirements and/or additional protected classes).

More information regarding employer responsibilities under federal nondiscrimination laws may be found in our section on Discrimination.

Charges of Discrimination Based on Disability Increase

Disability-accommodation-01Retaliation, race discrimination, and disability discrimination were the most commonly filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) during fiscal year 2015. While retaliation remains at the top of the list, disability charges increased by 6% from last year. In total, the agency received 89,385 private sector workplace discrimination complaints.

The laws enforced by the EEOC make it illegal for covered employers to discriminate against a job applicant or employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), national origin, age, disability, or genetic information.

New Employment Discrimination Guidance
The EEOC has issued two new sets of guidance concerning discrimination in the workplace. The first set of guidance explains responsibilities concerning the employment of individuals who are (or are perceived to be) Muslim or Middle Eastern, including information on background checks, hiring and other employment decisions, harassment, and religious accommodations.

A separate set of guidance addresses the rights of employees with HIV/AIDS when it comes to several workplace situations, including whether an employee is allowed to keep his or her condition private, the right to a reasonable accommodation if an employee’s condition could affect his or her job performance, and whether an employee could get fired if the employer knows that he or she has HIV/AIDS.

More information about the EEOC laws is featured in our section on Discrimination.

Retaliation Tops List of Employment Discrimination Complaints

office-politics2Retaliation, race discrimination, and sex discrimination were the most commonly filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) last year. Under the law, it is illegal to fire, demote, harass, or otherwise “retaliate” against an individual for complaining about or filing a charge of discrimination, or for participating in an employment discrimination proceeding (such as an investigation or lawsuit).

In total, the agency received 88,778 private sector workplace discrimination charges during fiscal year 2014 (which runs from October 1 to September 30). The number of charges filed decreased compared with recent fiscal years, due in part to the government shutdown during the reporting period. Termination continued to be the most frequently-cited discriminatory issue, followed by allegations of harassment (for all protected classes except race).

Employment Discrimination Laws Enforced by the EEOC

The laws enforced by the EEOC apply to employers who meet the threshold number of employees for coverage. For example:

More information about each of these laws is featured in our section on Discrimination.