Fighting Government Workplace Harassment

October 17, 2019 by Lisa Sigler

Fighting Government Workplace Harassment

Sexual harassment claims are climbing. How should your agency respond? What should you do as an individual?

The problem of sexual harassment in the workplace is not new.  At least two important sexual harassment milestones have been in place longer than most millennials have been in the workforce:

  • 1977 – The first time a federal appeals court said that sexual harassment violated the anti-discrimination provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and therefore was legitimate grounds for a legal complaint.
  • 1998 – The year the Supreme Court ruled that employers could be financially liable for an employee’s sexual harassment, even if the employer was unaware of it and had anti-harassment policies in place. 

By making employers liable, the 1998 ruling ushered in a wave of not just anti-harassment policies but prevention training programs. However, it takes more than laws on the books to change societal norms—and progress has been slow. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission statistics show a nearly 14% increase in sexual harassment claims in the last fiscal year.

However, the news isn’t all bad. A recent article suggests that this recent surge is at least in part a result of the #MeToo movement. The fact that sexual harassment complaints are increasing can be interpreted to mean not that sexual harassment is increasing, but that individuals are feeling more comfortable reporting incidents than they have in the past.

 MarketWatch quoted Cathy Ventrell-Monsees, senior counsel at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who said, “If those employees are stepping forward because they’re hopeful that they can trust their employers will address the problem, that’s a good sign.”

What Should an Agency Do?

The first step a federal agency must take is to ensure compliance with EEOC Management Directive 715 as part of their Title VII and Rehabilitation Act programs. MD 715 requirements include:

  • Documented policies and procedures for reporting harassment.
  • A system for providing a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation.
  • A process to ensure the identities of complainants and witnesses are kept confidential to the extent possible.

This directive is not geared specifically toward preventing sexual harassment, but provides a framework for handling all forms of workplace harassment claims. Having these pieces in place will ensure that, even if sexual harassment complaints continue to increase, internal processes will remain compliant. State and local governments should likewise comply with state and federal laws, and enforce existing anti-harassment policies.

Agencies must communicate their policies and expectations with regular, meaningful preventive training. It is also worthwhile to implement automated case management software to handle every stage of the complaint process—from initial complaint though investigation, decision, and even appeals. Any software solution implemented must, of course, protect the anonymity of the complainant and witnesses to the extent possible.

What Should an Individual Do?

If you’re a victim — If you were sexually assaulted, go to the police. If you were sexually harassed, in addition to following your employer’s procedures, you have 180 days following the incident to file a claim with EEOC, your state or local Fair Employment Practices Agency, or both. Write down exactly what happened, secure a witness if there was one, and preserve any evidence. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has additional recommendations regarding What to Do if You Believe You Have Been Harassed at Work.

If you’re a witness — Say something. Whether by interrupting the incident of harassment as it happens or by acting as a witness later, bystanders have real power.

If you’re a co-worker — Consider your own behavior. Make sure you are up-to-date on training and review company policies. Be mindful of what you say, and how you conduct yourself.  Maintaining an environment where sexual harassment is not acceptable is everyone’s responsibility.

As awareness increases and policies are strengthened and enforced, the number of sexual harassment claims may continue to rise. The best response is to plan for the increased numbers, and implement procedures to handle these cases quickly and decisively—until sexual harassment in the workplace is eliminated entirely. 

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