TV Explores #MeToo Red Flags as EEOC Stings Real-Life Harassers

One year has passed since The New York Times and The New Yorker broke the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal, yet television shows are still weaving #MeToo themes into their storylines. On November 1, 2018, NBC’s comedy series Will and Grace took up the serious topic in the subplot for an episode titled “Grace’s Secret.”

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In the episode, Grace (Debra Messing) goes on a road trip with her father Martin (Robert Klein), who wants to visit his wife’s and his best friend Harry’s graves. During a lunch stop, Grace’s father is overly friendly with their waitress. Grace admonishes him, and he retorts, “Everybody’s so sensitive nowadays…sometimes I feel like men can’t be men anymore—not with this hashtag ‘not me’ stuff.”

Martin’s response touches on a pain point for Grace, who reveals that, at age 15, she was sexually assaulted by Harry, her employer at the time. During the conversation, Martin insists that he “didn’t know,” and Grace asks, “Why didn’t you see?” Grace then points out the red flags he missed and the opportunities he had to learn the secret. She had only shared her secret with one person (her mother) up until then. Debra Messing’s performance in this episode was powerful and unlike anything we have seen from her on the show.

EEOC Zeroing in on Sexual Harassers

Not only is the #MeToo movement a continued plot focus in scripted television, a recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) press release demonstrates that combating all forms of workplace harassment remains a top priority for the agency. According to the release, the EEOC’s preliminary sexual harassment data for fiscal year (FY) 2018, which ran from October 1, 2017, through September 30, 2018, show:

  • The EEOC filed 66 harassment lawsuits, including 41 that included sexual harassment allegations—a 50% increase FY 2017;
  • Charges filed with the EEOC alleging sexual harassment increased by more than 12% over FY 2017; and
  • The agency recovered nearly $70 million for sexual harassment victims through litigation and administrative enforcement in FY 2018, up from $47.5 million in the previous year.

Although the uptick in the number of sexual harassment charges may seem nominal, this was the first increase in five years. Beyond charge administration and litigation, the press release highlighted other EEOC efforts aimed at curbing workplace harassment, including:

  • Conducting more than 1,000 outreach events on harassment for more than 115,000 individuals and employers;
  • Launching a “Respectful Workplaces” training seminar to teach skills that promote and contribute to respect in the workplace; and
  • Reconvening the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace for a public meeting to examine difficult legal issues and to share innovative strategies to prevent harassment.

Uptick in State Enforcement, Too

In the last year, states also have taken steps to respond to the #MeToo movement. For example, both New York state and New York City have implemented laws mandating sexual harassment training for all employees on an annual basis. The original state deadline for completing training was January 1, 2019. The deadline, however, was extended to October 2019. Employers covered by the New York City law must comply with its training requirements beginning April 1, 2019.

The New York state extension only applies to the training. Effective October 9, 2018, employers were required to adopt and promulgate a sexual harassment prevention policy. (A state-published Model Sexual Harassment Policy and Model Complaint Form, as well as Training Requirements and FAQs, are available at here.) Employers that are state contractors must submit an affirmation by January 2019 attesting to the fact that they have a sexual harassment policy in compliance with the new regulation and have trained all their employees on the terms of the policy.

Bottom Line for Employers

Given the continued focus, at both the federal and state levels, on eliminating workplace harassment, employers should make implementing and distributing an antiharassment policy and providing training a top priority for 2019.