EEOC: Only 10 percent of harassed employees file complaints

Christine Nazer, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission spokesman

About 90 percent of individuals who feel harassed in the workplace never file a formal complaint and the fear that they won't be believed or may face retaliation is "well-founded," according to a  2016 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report.

"It would behoove companies to update their training to reflect new social norms," said EEOC spokesman Christine Nazar. "Sexual harassment became illegal under Title VII in 1986. There haven’t really been changes in the law, it’'s more a matter of the approach to the training, the changes in social norms and how people discuss it."

In a study of workplace harassment from a 2016 task force, the EEOC found that gender-harassing conduct was almost never reported; unwanted physical touching was reported only 8 percent of the time and sexually coercive conduct was reported by only 30 percent of the people who experienced it.

The study also found that only between 6 percent and 13 percent of individuals who experience harassment file a formal complaint. 

The reasons so few report harassing behavior or file a complaint, the report said, is due to fear or expectation the individual will not be believed, no action will be taken or they will receive social or professional retaliation.

"The fears that stop most employees from reporting harassment are well-founded," the report said. One 2003 study found that 75 percent of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation. Other studies have found that sexual harassment reporting is often followed by employer indifference or trivialization of the harassment complaint. 

"Companies have had sexual harassment training for decades, but it clearly hasn’'t been very effective," Nazar said. 

The 2016 report points out that much of the training in the past 30 years has focused on avoiding legal liability.

What's needed is a fresh approach, Nazar said.

In October, the EEOC suggested new training for employers and employees that focus on changing the work environment.

Instead of training people on what not to do, the aim is encouraging civil behavior and encouraging management to know what's happening in the workplace. Nazar understands that the lines of harassment may be blurry.

"The key is that it is unwelcome," she said.

Geisinger, one of the largest employers in the Valley, is already taking the proactive approach.

At Geisinger, all 30,000 employees undergo annual training designed to educate and empower them on the issue and all allegations are kept confidential, said Amy Brayford, executive vice president, chief of staff and chief human resources officer for Geisinger. Managers in each sector are provided tools to help them communicate with employees about maintaining a safe workplace and employees are invited to discuss issues of concern directly with superiors, including Brayford and Geisinger President and CEO David Feinberg.

What issues need to be addressed often evolve depending on what concerns are brought to administrators by the employees, she said. In 2016, Geisinger launched Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which are employee-led groups formed around common interests and issues to help create a positive work atmosphere by giving workers a role.

The EEOC handles charges of workplace discrimination only, but discrimination and harassment can occur in lots of other settings, including college campuses and public schools.

Said Nazar, "Our bystander training does incorporate some principles from the college campus training,— if you see something that isn’'t right, here’'s how you handle it. We tailor our training if you’'re a law firm, if you’'re a restaurant, if you’'re a hotel, —we will tailor the training to your workplace setting."

According to the EEOC report, Bystander Intervention Training, long used as a violence prevention strategy, is now being used by colleges and schools to prevent sexual assault by empowering students to intervene with peers if a situation arises.

Most of the trainings use at least four strategies that include creating awareness so bystanders can recognize a potential problem; create a sense of collective responsibility; provide empowerment conduct-building skill exercises to give bystanders confidence to intervene and provide resources they can use. 

Email comments to mmoore@dailyitem.com or d_irwin@ncnewsonline.com. Follow Marcia on Twitter @marciamoore4.

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