Diversity Insight

EEOC Sees Uptick in Sexual Harassment Claims from #MeToo Movement

While the initial anecdotal evidence was somewhat inconclusive about whether the #MeToo movement has created an atmosphere in which more victims of past sexual harassment or sexual assault are poised to come forward, the preliminary sexual harassment data for 2018 from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) now suggests that #MeToo is beginning to make inroads into the workplace. Employers must continue to be on guard and proactive in making their places of employment free from a hostile work environment in all forms and, in particular, free from sexual harassment.

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Results from Initial EEOC Data

According to the EEOC’s preliminary data for 2018:

  • The agency filed 66 harassment lawsuits last year, including 41 that contained allegations of sexual harassment. That reflects a more than 50 percent increase in lawsuits challenging sexual harassment over fiscal year (FY) 2017.
  • In addition, charges filed with the EEOC alleging sexual harassment increased by more than 12 percent from FY 2017.
  • Overall, the EEOC recovered nearly $70 million for sexual harassment victims through litigation and administrative enforcement in FY 2018, up from $47.5 million in FY 2017.

Importantly, the EEOC is tasked with combating allforms of workplace harassment, whether it’s based on sex, race, color, disability, age, national origin, or religion. While no one should be subjected to a hostile work environment for any reason, the EEOC has taken extra measures to respond to the groundswell of claims resulting from the new openness to speaking out against sexual harassment that has been a positive by-product of the #MeToo movement.

“I am so proud of the EEOC staff who stepped up to the heightened demand of the #MeToo movement to make clear that workplace harassment is not only unlawful [but] is simply not acceptable,” said acting EEOC chair Victoria A. Lipnic. “As the agency with expertise, as the enforcer of the law, and as an educator, the EEOC has continued to lead the way to achieve the goal of reducing the level of harassment and to promote harassment-free workplaces.”

Moreover, the EEOC’s innovative “Respectful Workplaces” training program, which teaches skills that allow employees and supervisors to promote and contribute to respect in the workplace, has been in high demand since it was launched in 2017. More than 9,000 employees and supervisors in the private, public, and federal workforce participated in Respectful Workplaces training during the past fiscal year. An additional 13,000 employees participated in the EEOC’s antiharassment compliance trainings.

What Employers Can Do

The many disturbing stories that have come out of the #MeToo movement contain similar themes. In the past, many companies were quick to circle the wagons to protect a powerful individual because of a fear of the perceived financial ramifications if he was exposed, or out of a sense that the alleged harasser was somehow indispensable, and the company couldn’t survive if it didn’t protect and keep him in a position of power.

As more and more high-powered individuals are exposed and outed for their misconduct, it has become abundantly clear that many victims remained silent or that the victims who came forward either weren’t believed or had their claims brushed under the rug, and the perpetrators didn’t face any serious consequences for their conduct. As more high-powered individuals are now finally paying the price for their despicable conduct, it has been universally shown that allowing bad behavior to continue doesn’t serve an organization well and no one is indispensable. Rather, as with cancer, the time to address the problem is early, and allowing sexual harassment to fester doesn’t serve anyone’s interest.

Accordingly, it’s imperative to make it known that bad behavior won’t be tolerated at any level in your organization and that all allegations of a hostile work environment will be fully investigated. You shouldn’t simply give lip service to your antiharassment policies. Moreover, you must promptly remedy all meritorious claims so the misconduct won’t be ongoing or repeated. The more employees feel safe and comfortable reporting incidents of harassment in any form and any level of severity, the more likely perpetrators will understand that you take harassment seriously.

Bottom Line

The past few years have ushered in a monumental change in how we view people in power or those who are famous or rich. We have seen the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Bill Cosby finally beginning to face consequences for their allegedly deplorable actions. High-profile cases have helped victims realize that keeping quiet is not in their own best interests or in the best interests of the organization or other potential victims. Employers should expect to continue to learn about previously undisclosed harassment incidents before we see things moving in a more positive direction toward workplaces that are healthy and not hostile.

Saul C. Glazer is an Attorney with Axley Brynelson, LLP. He is also an Editor of Wisconsin Employment Law Letter, and can be reached sglazer@axley.com.