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The Times They Are A-Changing: EEOC Task Force Focuses on Evolving Harassment in the Workplace and New Ways to Combat It

The EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace recently held the third in a series of public meetings, a two-part panel aimed at understanding the different and evolving nature of harassment in the workplace and potentially new methods for addressing harassment.  The Task Force was created early this year by EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang.  The Task Force co-chairs, Commissioners Chai R. Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic, anticipate making recommendations to Chairwoman Yang in early 2016.  We quickly revisit the highlights from the Task Force’s December 7 public meeting below.

During the December 7 public meeting, the Task Force heard testimony from a panel of lawyers representing different constituency groups and from experts in the use of social media and technology to advocate for change.

With respect to workplace harassment, recent events have brought several classes of individuals to the forefront.  Areas of particular concern include the impact of current events on Muslims in the workplace and increased visibility into workers’ sexual orientations and gender identities, possibly as a result of workers feeling more confident “coming out” in the wake of recent victories for marriage equality.  In addition, the panel of experts discussed issues related to hidden disabilities, which can give rise to intrusive medical questions and innuendo.  The Task Force also heard testimony regarding the insidious nature of age-based harassment in the workplace and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act’s failure to provide any monetary remedy for harassment alone (unlike Title VII).

As to addressing these evolving issues, the Task Force heard from a panel of experts on social media and technology.  Overall, the takeaways were that social media and technology can and should be used to make filing complaints of harassment and seeking guidance about workplace issues much easier for workers.  Members of the panel discussed the potential for the EEOC to improve its search optimization, offer mobile-friendly online forms for filing complaints, and provide “tool kits” for employees seeking to assert their rights under the anti-discrimination laws.  The EEOC also heard testimony about the chilling effect of overly broad social media policies on workers’ communications regarding workplace harassment.

What can we expect?  It is difficult to predict which issues the Task Force will ultimately seize upon in making its recommendations.  However, I predict that the recommendation will focus in part on the EEOC’s online presence and the need for enhanced online resources for workers seeking to file a complaint or seeking more information about workplace harassment.  I also predict that the recommendation will focus on the need for written EEOC guidance concerning how to identify and address age-, gender identity-, and sexual orientation-based harassment in the workplace.   I’ll continue to monitor and report on the Task Force’s progress into the New Year.

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Erin Horton