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EEOC’s Current Stand on Discrimination and Harassment: What You Should Know

We recently told you about the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) increasingly aggressive position on severance agreements and those it views as “overly broad.” As it turns out, severance agreements aren’t the only sticking points the EEOC is cracking down on.

Already in 2015, the federal agency has sued a handful of businesses on a wide range of issues including disability discrimination and bias, sex discrimination, religious discrimination and racial harassment and retaliation. Additionally, EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang has identified workplace harassment as a focus this year for the agency, which is developing a task force to help identify ways to prevent and correct the issue.  According to Yang, workplace harassment is alleged in roughly 30 percent of all charges filed with the EEOC.

Although the EEOC has stepped up its litigation activity—particularly in regard to discrimination and harassment—the agency is not winning its cases across the board. According to Lexology, in EEOC v. Performance Food Group, Inc., the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland denied the EEOC’s efforts to impose harsh sanctions on an employer that the agency believed was late in complying with its discovery obligations. And in EEOC v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd the Eleventh Circuit Court refused to enforce an overly broad and unduly burdensome EEOC subpoena (a fight the EEOC has lost on three prior occasions).

“If these decisions are any indication, it will be another year in which the agency pushes the limits of the legal envelope in terms of tactical advantage, leaving it to the courts to police the boundaries of what is reasonable,” write the attorneys of Seyfarth Shaw LLC.

Whether you win or lose the case, facing the EEOC can be costly. According to Amy Beckstead, partner, Beckstead Terry PLLC, employers can help reduce the risk of having to defend against an EEOC discrimination charge by taking some simple, common-sense steps.

  1. Companies should make sure they have robust anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies that have been well-communicated to their employees, and ensure everyone has been trained on these policies.  Even more important than policies and training, says Beckstead:  A company culture that values diversity and inclusion.
  2. “Good management is key to avoiding workplace disputes that lead to EEOC claims,” she states. “Managers must be given the right tools to know how to incentivize their employees and address performance deficiencies in a fair and impartial manner.”
  3. Ensuring managers know when to involve HR in workplace disputes is also critical.  “Attempting to resolve claims of harassment or discrimination without involving HR is a recipe for disaster,” Beckstead cautions.
  4. When employees do report issues or problems, according to Beckstead, the most important thing a company can do is act quickly to address the employee’s issue and resolve the matter. “Conducting a prompt and thorough investigation of claims of harassment and discrimination and taking appropriate action will reduce or eliminate an individual’s desire to then file an EEOC charge and subsequent litigation,” she says.

What’s on your mind when it comes to the EEOC this year? Are you planning to update your HR policies for better compliance?


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