EEOC Wants to Leverage Transformative Power of #MeToo

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek June 13, 2018

Nine months into "this great cultural awakening" over workplace harassment and the social movements such as #MeToo that followed, complex "second- and third-generation issues" are emerging that demand attention, said Victoria A. Lipnic, acting chair for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

That includes using training models that focus on harassment prevention. Attention should be directed at creating respectful workplaces through civility and bystander-intervention training instead of being overly focused on compliance and legal liability, she said Monday, when the agency's Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace reconvened.

In 2016 the task force, chaired by Lipnic and EEOC Commissioner Chai R. Feldblum, released a report that recommended changes in leadership, accountability, policies and procedures, training, and developing a sense of collective responsibility. At that time, it pointed out that the typical harassment-prevention training wasn't effective.

"We're moving from the moment when we no longer are looking at [training on] how to avoid liability," said Debra Katz, a partner at Katz, Marshall and Banks law firm in Washington, D.C. She specializes in employment, Title IX and whistle-blower protection. She was among panelists at the meeting.

"The bigger piece is how do we create respectful workplace culture, and how do we train for that? Computer-based training is ineffective; it's cheap, but what is it that we want as a culture? What do we want as a country? If we're truly interested in eradicating sexual harassment, we have to ask different questions, and training has to be geared toward those questions."

Suzanne Hultin, program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, said that more than 125 pieces of legislation have been introduced in 32 states this year. Many states, she noted, are looking beyond federal regulations that require managers and employees to be trained to prevent workplace sexual harassment. She projected that proposals to address and prevent harassment would continue to be a priority for state legislatures this year and next. 

Elizabeth Tippett, a professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, noted the importance of addressing other forms and aspects of harass­ment.

"It would be a mistake for employers and state legislators to limit their response exclusively to sexual harassment," she said. "In doing so, they risk laying a foundation for the next crisis, whether it involves other forms of harassment, or discrimination and retaliation."

There is no data yet, Lipnic said, as to whether there has been an increase in the number of sexual-harassment charges logged with the EEOC since October. She has heard anecdotally that "internally, employers have seen an uptick … in investigations HR is doing" and an increase in demand letters to employers. Because of that, she noted, "these things get resolved before they come to the EEOC" for investigation and mediation.

The Society for Human Resource Management believes employers should have effective anti-harassment policies that enable quick and thorough investigations of harassment complaints and hold perpetrators accountable.

[SHRM members-only policy: Sexual Harassment Policy and Complaint/Investigation Procedure]

Innovative Solutions

Lipnic noted that industry-specific approaches to harassment are helpful.

Erin Wade, CEO and co-founder of Homeroom, a restaurant in Oakland, Calif., outlined a simple color-coded system that waitstaff there developed to signal when they were confronted with harassing behavior from a customer. 

Staff use "yellow" as a code word to indicate when a customer "gave a creepy vibe," "orange" when customer comments could be construed as inappropriate, and "red" when customer behavior veered into sexual comments and touching. Managers take over a table any time a staff member uses any of the three colors. Red signals the need for the manager to talk with the customer and ask him or her to leave and not return.

Wade said her company focuses heavily on working on emotional intelligence with employees, and prepares supervisors on how to talk to customers about a sensitive situation and handle conflict. The people that managers have confronted have been sheepish, not aggressive or angry, she said, and the management alert color system, or MAC, has "nearly eradicated the red situations" at the eatery.

"You simply report a color; you don't need to feel judged. … It takes a second to communicate, and [intervention] can be enacted immediately," she noted. "We all want to feel safe at work, and MAC honors that."

Jill Geisler, a fellow with the Newseum's Freedom Forum Institute in Washington, D.C., described the Power Shift Project, an initiative aggregating what newsrooms and media organizations are doing to deal with emerging cases of sexual misconduct and what systemic changes are needed to end harassment and promote opportunity for everyone.

She said her most popular training uses case studies to illustrate how to have difficult conversations in the workplace, because it helps people learn how to make a stand in their everyday interactions, she said. Geisler also noted the importance of tailoring training to individual workplaces so employees "don't walk away from identical training with different perceptions" of what a respectful, civil workplace looks like.

Kasey Nalls, a union member of Unite Here Local 1 in Chicago and a cocktail waitress for 13 years, described the "Hands Off Pants On" campaign that the union and the Chicago Federation of Labor spearheaded in 2015. Hospitality staff are given wireless panic buttons to signal for assistance to help protect hotel workers from sexual harassment and assault by guests. The Chicago City Council passed an ordinance adopting it in October 2017.

And Lisa Gelobter, CEO and co-founder of tEQuitable, explained the independent platform she created to address issues of bias, discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Her Oakland, Calif.-based company has built a third-party, tech-enabled Ombuds program that is a confidential sounding board for employees to address issues of bias, discrimination and harassment. She said the system can handle workplace concerns that include ageism, homophobia and racial bias.

Feldblum said the task force found that one of the biggest roadblocks to stopping harassment in the workplace was convincing people that a serious problem exists. Today, "people are talking about, and people are listening to, stories of harassment to an extent that has not happened before. We have the chance now to leverage this moment to create significant and sustainable change."



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