The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace reconvened today to hear from expert witnesses on “Transforming #MeToo Into Harassment-Free Workplaces” at a meeting open to the public.
“Our co-chairs’ report on harassment laid the groundwork for the launch of a renewed effort to prevent harassment,” stated Acting EEOC Chair Victoria A. Lipnic. “Since last fall, the public’s demand for action has coalesced with this effort. The EEOC will continue to lead the fight against workplace harassment and to promote solutions to prevent it.”
EEOC Commissioner Chai R. Feldblum added: “Our challenge is to use this #MeToo moment well. We have a road map given the work we have done at the EEOC. We have the attention and commitment of the range of different actors in society that we need. Together, we can channel that energy to create significant and sustainable change.”
#MeToo and #TimesUp
Legal scholars and attorneys who represent workers and employers highlighted a range of issues raised in the wake of high-profile allegations of sexual harassment since October 2017 and the rise in the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. These experts discussed non-disclosure and arbitration agreements and training mandates, and shared proposals for legal reform from state legislatures and industry groups, who have taken up action to address sexual harassment in the workplace.
Elizabeth Tippett, a professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, provided an overview of a range of legal issues and noted the importance of also 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,” Tippett said. “In doing so, they risk laying a foundation for the next crisis, whether it involves other forms of harassment, or discrimination and retaliation.”
Debra Katz, a partner with Katz, Marshall and Banks, said, “#MeToo movement forces society to see the gaps between the promises of our politicians and lawmakers and the realities of individuals, face to face in the workplace.” Katz outlined how Title VII and state laws have been thwarted for too long by evasions that the legal system itself has sanctioned. “#MeToo illustrates the immense cost of that failure,” Katz noted.
Kathleen McKenna, a partner at Proskauer Rose, who represents employers, testified that arbitration provides a neutral and confidential process to resolve individual harassment complaints for conduct that employers “invariably prohibit and work to guard against.” McKenna also explained that proposals to prohibit non-disclosure agreements are likely to be counterproductive, as that could lead to an increase in litigation rather than private resolution.
Suzanne Hultin with the National Conference of State Legislatures testified that over “125 pieces of legislation have been introduced this year in 32 states.” Hultin noted that many states are looking to go beyond federal regulations 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.
Innovative Anti-Harassment Strategies
A second panel presented innovative strategies that employers, unions, and others have developed to promote workplaces free of harassing conduct.
Jill Geisler, a fellow with the Newseum’s Freedom Forum Institute, described the Power Shift Project, a solutions-based effort about 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 all. While discussing the Power Shift Summit, the kick-off event for the project, Geisler described “a sense of new urgency and serious commitment among participants to fix these problems and create meaningful, sustainable change.”
Kasey Nalls, a member of the union UNITEHERE, described the “Hands Off Pants On” campaign that was spearheaded by UNITE HERE Local 1 and the Chicago Federation of Labor two years before the #MeToo movement exploded last fall. The initiative helps protect hotel workers from sexual harassment and assault by guests and an ordinance adopting it was unanimously passed by the Chicago City Council in October 2017. “Since the anti-sexual harassment policy went in to effect in January 2018, we’ve observed a chipping away at culture that permeates the hospitality industry that the “‘guest is always right,’” said Nalls.
Erin Wade and her staff at a restaurant called Homeroom developed a simple color-coded system for wait staff to use to signal if they confront harassing conduct from a customer, which then triggers a specific, mandated action by the manager to handle the situation. Wade emphasized that “We need to listen to the suggestions of women for how to solve the problems plaguing them, and put them in the position to change their own worlds.” She reported the success of this system as customer harassment is no longer a significant problem and the system has created a safe workplace for staff.
Jess Ladd, founder and CEO of Callisto, testified about her non-profit’s online documentation and reporting platforms in which the first report of a harassing incident creates a “matching escrow” that allows victims of sexual harassment to hold their identities in escrow until another victim of the same harasser comes forward. The second report triggers both victims being put in touch with the same Callisto legal advocate. “Callisto Expansion is designed to help victims understand the full range of their options, from HR to police to the press to the EEOC to confronting their perpetrator. We help victims understand which of these options they can pursue, given their case and the case of linked victims,” Ladd testified.
Lisa Gelobter, CEO and co-founder of tEQuitable, has created an independent, confidential platform to address issues of bias, discrimination and harassment in the workplace. She said that tEQuitable has built a third-party, tech-enabled Ombuds program, which “is the only platform implementing solutions to proactively stop harassment, not just reactively catch harassers after the fact.”
The Select Task Force, co-chaired in 2015 and 2016 by EEOC Commissioner Chai R. Feldblum and Commissioner and now-Acting Chair Victoria A. Lipnic, consisted of representatives of academia and social science; legal practitioners on both the plaintiff and defense sides; employer and employee advocacy groups; and organized labor. Co-Chairs Feldblum and Lipnic released a report based on the work of the task force on June 20, 2016. The report includes recommendations regarding leadership, accountability, policies and procedures, training, and developing a sense of collective responsibility.
As a result of the co-chairs’ report, the EEOC developed an innovative training program called Respectful Workplaces that has been provided in over 200 training sessions to over 5,200 employees and supervisors in 18 states. Since June 2016, when the report was released, the EEOC has also con-ducted about 2,700 outreach events related to harassment, reaching approximately 300,000 individuals.