Revamping Your Anti-Harassment ProgramsIn the wake of the #MeToo movement, I have clients wanting to know what they can do both to improve their workplace and protect themselves. They all have good policies and regularly train supervisors and employees on them. So what’s next? Although there is no silver bullet, I suggest you start with the following three things.

Review Your EEO Policy

Although most EEO policies are pretty straightforward, they can always use a little polishing. Does the policy mention all of the protected categories that apply to all of your locations? As a company grows, it can find itself with employees in states or municipalities that have classifications that are not covered in the federal laws. Many states have laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Additionally, a number of federal circuit courts have ruled that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination also covers discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Then there are municipalities that have covered even more categories. For example, Washington, D.C.’s Human Rights Law prohibits discrimination based on marital status, personal appearance, family responsibilities, matriculation and political affiliation.  Be sure your EEO policy is keeping up.

Review Your Harassment Policy

You need to update your harassment policy like you are updating your EEO policy. In addition to making sure the protected categories are broad enough, think about beefing up your reporting processes.

For years I have preached to clients that they need to have centralized reporting rather than having employees report to any supervisor. It is not that I want to make it hard to report—however, front line supervisors are in a tough spot. They may not have the skills to handle a complaint. Also, front line supervisors are more likely to know a lot about the complainant and the alleged perpetrator and handle it themselves. You don’t want someone discounting a report because “everyone knows the complainant is a liar” or “I know he didn’t mean anything by that.” Those are not good legal defenses.

I am coming to the conclusion that reporting hotlines, including the ability to report anonymously, may be the best options. Properly run hotlines get reports to the right people sooner. Also, if someone has the ability to report anonymously, it makes a later argument that he or she didn’t want to report because they would suffer retaliation a lot less convincing. Investigating an anonymous report presents challenges, but I think it is better to investigate what you can.

And another thing—really think about whether you want to say you have a zero tolerance policy. I find that is easily misinterpreted to mean that anyone found to have violated the harassment policy will be terminated. Is that really what you mean? I find that sexual harassment policy violations can come in a lot of different packages, ranging from unintended, thoughtless comments to boorish behavior to sexual assault. Although you can decide that you will treat all of those events the same, do you want to? In some ways, such a one-size-fits-all approach discourages complaints about behavior that we want to change, but that doesn’t deserve termination.

Revisit Your Training

Train people, and track it. New employees and new supervisors should complete training either before or shortly after they start. Everyone should go through training of some sort periodically. California requires everyone to be trained at least every two years. The State of New York has just enacted a law  that requires employers to provide annual sexual harassment prevention training.

What should your harassment training look like? New York’s new law comes with model training, including minimum standards, for employers to use. Saying that you met those standards, even if you didn’t have to, wouldn’t be a bad fact in defending a claim. So, even if you don’t have employees in New York, it may be worth looking at this material to see if there are parts you want to use.

Get company leadership on board. Having senior leadership (not just HR) involved in training gets employees’ attention and sends the message that this is important. It also gives you the opportunity to talk about workplace culture and respect for each other—more than just saying “don’t harass each other.”

Get feedback from the participants. Give them a chance to ask questions or take a test to be sure they got the message. Send a follow-up message to get feedback and see what stuck.

Making Sure Your Company Is Not the Next Harassment HashtagLike every other employment lawyer in America, I have been giving a good bit of thought to #MeToo and what it means for my clients. Many (although certainly not all) of the stories under this hashtag are about unreported harassment—egregious behavior that people did not feel comfortable reporting. My clients want to hear about a problem (and be given a chance to remedy it) before it hits Twitter or Facebook or whatever.

So, once a company has a good, solid policy prohibiting harassment (and I like to think that all of my clients do), what else should we be doing to encourage internal complaints? While this is not an exhaustive list, here are a few ideas:

  • Make sure employees know how to raise a complaint. The hotline number/email helpline/HR contact information should be widely publicized and easy to use. Make sure it is accessible to employees with disabilities or for whom English is not their first language.
  • If you haven’t done training in a while, do some. I am refocusing my training a little to talk about respect in the workplace rather than just illegal harassment prevention. Maybe the supervisor doesn’t know that it creeps his secretary out when he leans over her to look at her computer screen—but if no one tells him, he will probably keep doing it. We need to encourage employees to raise concerns before they reach a legal threshold. On the flip side, encourage supervisors to be respectful of employees’ sensibilities and not overreact if someone raises a concern.
  • Recirculate your policy and take that opportunity to personalize it a little. I had one client whose president sent an email distributing the policy, reinforcing the company culture, and encouraging people to raise concerns (even about him). They got great, supportive responses from the employees saying how much they appreciated the message. It doesn’t have to be much but should convey the following:

Our culture is that we work hard and collaboratively, and we respect our coworkers. We will not tolerate disrespectful treatment, whether it is based on sex, race or anything else. If you are experiencing a different culture, let us know.

If behavior makes you uncomfortable at work, even if you don’t think it is “harassment,” let us know so we can address it. This is true no matter who it is—coworker, boss, vendor, client, anyone. Please don’t let someone’s behavior escalate before you complain. We will handle each complaint appropriately and as confidentially as possible.

  • When you get a complaint, investigate it to the extent you can. I have had two situations in which after raising a verbal complaint, the complaining party refused to talk to our investigator. We investigated what we could and took action on what we found.
  • Don’t dismiss complaints about conduct from years ago. If someone is raising it now, you need to be sure you don’t have a current problem.
  • When people cross the line, take appropriate and decisive action to stop any harassing behavior. If you can do so with disciplinary action short of termination, that’s fine. However, if the alleged behavior is egregious and you believe it happened, you may need to fire someone.

We all think we have a good workplace culture. Now is the time to make sure our employees agree.

The EEOC’s fiscal year just ended and now it is releasing news of its successes. Although this is a look back, it gives us all insight as to what is important to the Commission and, perhaps, how we can stay off its radar. While the official report is being released today, here are some highlights.

Tis the Season: The EEOC’s Year-End Reports Are Out TodayMore Efficiency, Quicker Resolution?

The EEOC is working on being more efficient and thinks it is making some progress. First, offices are prioritizing charges to focus on meritorious charges and disposing of charges more quickly. It received more than 84,000 charges of discrimination in the last fiscal year and, through its improved efficiencies, reduced its backlog to the lowest it has been in 10 years.

Another innovation is the new EEOC Public Portal that was just launched nationwide. This appears to be the flip side of the employers’ Respondent Portal that we have been using for the last few years. Employees can now find out how to file a charge, set up interviews with the EEOC and check the status of their charges all from the comfort of their homes.

More Money, More Lawsuits

As with so many government agencies, the EEOC is touting the amount of money it has recovered. The EEOC collected nearly $400 million from employers in the private sector and state and local government. Of that amount, the vast majority ($355.6 million) was paid voluntarily — through mediation, conciliation and other administrative enforcement.

On the litigation front, the EEOC recovered $42.4 million through litigation last year. The EEOC also stepped up the number of lawsuits it filed. The commission filed 184 lawsuits, more than doubling the number from FY 2016. Of the 184 suits, about 67 percent were for individuals, while only 16 percent were systemic suits.

Training Resources

You can now have the EEOC Training Institute staff train your supervisors (Leading for Respect) and employees (Respect in the Workplace). I have a client who has had the EEOC come provide harassment training for the last several years, and it looks like the Commission is institutionalizing those efforts. As the program is new, I cannot tell you what it is like. However, it is certainly something to consider, particularly in the wake of recent harassment complaints.

Takeaways

First, the EEOC is clearly trying to reduce the amount of time a charge spends with the agency. We have all had charges that were pending for more than two years—which then means you could have to defend a lawsuit with a back-pay figure that is already out of control. Perhaps the improved efficiencies will make these stale charges a thing of the past.

Second, the EEOC wants to resolve the charges early and is having some success doing so. I always talk with clients about EEOC mediation—and it works with many (although not all) charges. I have also noticed that EEOC investigators try to encourage settlement discussions even when the parties have not agreed to mediate the charge. Although I was initially leery of having the purportedly neutral investigator orchestrate negotiations, for the most part I have found the investigators’ efforts to be helpful and have resolved some charges (usually low dollar) in that way.

Third, note that the majority of the EEOC’s lawsuits are filed on behalf of individuals —not multiple plaintiffs or systemic issues. The EEOC has a list of priorities (harassment, pay disparity and disability are perennial favorites) and wants to make law on those issues. These numbers make clear that the Commission is willing to make that law one plaintiff at a time.

Finally, IMHO the best training involves your employment counsel. However, the EEOC’s training resources are worth considering. If you use these resources, it will be tough for the Commission (or a plaintiff’s lawyer) to argue that you don’t take prevention seriously.