The #MeToo movement has galvanized many into taking action to fight workplace harassment. Since the movement began in the fall of last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—tasked with enforcing laws prohibiting sexual harassment—has indicated it has seen an uptick in the amount of traffic to its website. But, it also indicated this increase in website visitors has not translated into an increase in formal complaints to the EEOC filed by employees against their employers. Still, the EEOC has carried the torch of the #MeToo movement, signaling that the lack of an increase in claims will not stop the agency from vigorously enforcing anti-harassment laws.
After the groundswell that developed in response to widespread claims of workplace harassment, the EEOC reconvened a task force focused on preventive measures. When the task force first convened in 2016, the focus was on sexual harassment training. The task force found that most employers’ training focused on avoiding legal liability instead of preventing harassment. In addition, the task force now has its focus on a less obvious form of harassment—an employee facing harassment from a customer. This new iteration of the task force indicates that the EEOC is expanding its definition of harassment to encompass all circumstances where an employee has to decide between tolerating harassment or earning a living.
Given the “cultural awakening” born of the #MeToo movement, there was an expectation that the EEOC would see an increase in sexual harassment claims filed by employees. In the 2017 fiscal year, which ended shortly before the movement began, employees filed more than 12,000 charges alleging sexual harassment. But with the 2018 fiscal year nearing its end, the EEOC has not reported a surge in the number of reports. Yet the agency has not relented in its pursuit of employers that violate anti-harassment laws. Just last month, the EEOC filed seven lawsuits alleging harassment, including race-based harassment, against employers.
And while the agency has not received the expected influx of sexual harassment charges, anecdotally, employers have reported a rise in complaints to human resources managers who investigate harassment claims. So though the EEOC has not had more opportunities for enforcement of anti-harassment laws, the agency’s other goal—awareness—is likely being effectuated. Because of the #MeToo movement, employees are becoming more cognizant of what constitutes harassment and are resorting to internal processes to vindicate their rights.
the EEOC plans to continue to use the #MeToo movement to its advantage. With more eyes and ears recognizing harassment, the agency hopes to maintain the energy created by the movement to effect significant changes. As awareness by employees and the focus by the EEOC increases, employers should ensure their harassment policies are up to date and being enforced. For more information on how employers can implement and identify common sense strategies in response to the #MeToo movement, watch our Labor and Employment Quick Take YouTube video entitled Tips for Renewing Your Company’s Focus on Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.