Workplace Harassment Still Pervasive, EEOC Hears

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Commission creates new task force after witnesses testify about recent cases 

More-frequent training, guidelines for investigations, and consent decrees that force employers to identify and combat discrimination were among the suggestions from experts who testified at a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hearing on how to prevent harassment in the workplace.

The need for the Jan. 14, 2015, hearing became clear after Carla Miaskoff, EEOC’s acting associate legal counsel, ticked off a list of recent harassment lawsuits that demonstrated what she called “the need for progress”—even half a century after Congress created the EEOC to enforce workplace anti-discrimination laws.

One of the cases, which the EEOC settled in December 2014, involved an airport fueling company whose managers routinely referred to workers from Sudan, Ghana and Sierra Leone using animal imagery and who taunted these same workers by making references to slavery.

The hearing focused on all types of harassment—that based on sex, race, disability, age and more. EEOC chairwoman Jenny Yang noted that workplace harassment is alleged in approximately 30 percent of charges filed with the agency.

“Today, we continue to see systemic barriers to equal opportunity in many areas, including hiring, persistent harassment and increased retaliation,” wrote Yang in a statement released before the hearing. “This … presents an opportune time for a call to action—to enlist employers and workers in a broader effort to prevent and correct workplace discrimination and to identify real-world solutions for our most difficult workplace challenges.”

Yang announced after the hearing that she is creating a task force of employers, workers’ advocates, human resources experts, and academics to identify strategies to prevent and remedy harassment in the workplace.

Patricia Wise, a partner with Niehaus Wise & Kalas Ltd. and co-chair of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) Labor Relations Special Expertise Panel, testified on behalf of the Society.

“I have three daughters, and boiling mad does not begin to describe how I… react to some of the cases I’ve seen in my 30 years of practice,” Wise said, adding that the single best way to prevent harassment is through training that is repeated, involves CEOs and includes specific examples of what behaviors are unacceptable.

“I don’t understand why employers don’t conduct more regular refreshers,” Wise said, noting that many companies offer training only yearly. “They don’t need to do full-blown training, but why not at every staff meeting or every quarterly sales meeting, take 10 minutes to talk about some aspect of harassment … use some recent case that’s been in the news … make it a topic that is constantly revisited.”

A second way to eliminate harassment, Wise said, is to handpick the people to whom aggrieved workers should report.

“I worry when I see a policy … that all supervisors are appropriate … because not all supervisors are appropriate to handle harassment complaints,” she said.

Finally, Wise said, employers need examples of what an effective harassment investigation looks like. (See below for links to SHRM resources on this topic.)

Also testifying was Laudente Montoya, a former mechanic with well-servicing company Dart Energy Corp. in Wyoming. In December 2014, the EEOC settled a lawsuit against Dart Energy and two related companies for $1.2 million after Montoya and other Dart employees alleged that black, Hispanic and Native American workers were repeated targets of racial slurs and then were punished for complaining to higher-ups. Montoya, who is Hispanic, said he was called “Uncle Beaner,” “spic” and other derogatory terms. He was admonished when he spoke Spanish with co-workers and told that his native language had no place in America. When he objected, he was told that he needed to toughen up because the oil business is a “rough” one. Two weeks after complaining to superiors, he was fired.

Sean Ratliff, an EEOC trial attorney who litigated the case against Dart Energy, said that “far more discrimination is going on than we know because of the reluctance to report it.”

“Archie Bunker might have been amusing in a 1970s sitcom,” he said, referring to the TV character who was prone to bigoted comments. “But in [today’s] workplace you can’t allow people to continue behaving in a way that denigrates racial minorities.”

Ratliff said that the consent decrees that the EEOC has established in its cases can help prevent future harassment. Such decrees, he said, can include training requirements, harassment-reporting hotlines, and yearly anonymous surveys asking workers if they’ve seen or experienced harassment.

“As these cases illustrate, we have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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