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Sexual Harassment Claims Are Climbing. How Will Your Agency Respond?

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By: Lisa Sigler

May 8, 2019 | Human Capital

What should a government agency do to deal with an increase in sexual harassment claims? Equal Employment Opportunity Commission statistics show a nearly 14% increase in sexual harassment claims in the last fiscal year. A recent MarketWatch.com article suggests that this surge is at least in part a result of the #MeToo movement, along with workplace awareness and training activities that have sprung up in the movement’s wake. If that’s the case, then there is reason to suspect that the numbers will continue to rise. Agencies must have a plan in place to handle this uptick in sexual harassment claims. 

Prioritize Compliance

The first step a federal agency must take is to ensure compliance with EEOC Management Directive 715 as part of their Title VII and Rehabilitation Act programs. MD 715 requirements include:

  • Documented policies and procedures for reporting harassment.
  • A system for providing a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation.
  • A process to ensure the identities of complainants and witnesses are kept confidential to the extent possible.

This directive is not geared specifically toward preventing sexual harassment, but provides a framework for handling all forms of workplace harassment claims. Having these pieces in place will ensure that, even if sexual harassment complaints continue to increase, internal processes will remain compliant. 

Consider Automation

Managing a sexual harassment claim can be time- and effort-intensive, frustrating both the complainants and the staff members investigating the claims. As the number of claims increases, it is worthwhile to consider making the entire process more efficient by implementing automated case management software.

Anti-harassment case management software should automate the processing of both general and type-specific harassment complaints, such as sexual harassment. To be most effective, it must handle every stage of the complaint process, from receipt through investigation to decision. Ideally, it also should manage appeals and reconsiderations. Agency personnel will save time with a solution that automates the uploading documents and files and helps them keep up on timelines and due dates.

Most importantly, though, automated systems should protect the anonymity of the complainant and witnesses to a degree that other processes can’t. This confidentiality complies with MD 715, a provision that encourages individuals to speak up who may feel uncomfortable or fear retaliation otherwise. 

See the Big Picture

While written policies and software investments can help an agency take action when a sexual harassment claim is made, it is better to prevent harassment from taking place at all. MarketWatch references Victoria Lipnic, the EEOC’s acting chairwoman, who estimated that only about 15% to 20% of workers who experience sexual harassment report it. That means there is a lot of work still to be done—but many organizations are already working hard. New workplace training and awareness campaigns shed light on unacceptable behavior and can prompt people to report behavior that they might not have before. When organizations take complaints seriously, individuals are more likely to trust the process and not fear retaliation.

The fact that sexual harassment complaints are increasing can be interpreted to mean not that sexual harassment is increasing, but that individuals are feeling more comfortable reporting incidents than they have in the past. MarketWatch quoted Cathy Ventrell-Monsees, senior counsel at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who said, “If those employees are stepping forward because they’re hopeful that they can trust their employers will address the problem, that’s a good sign.”

As awareness increases and policies are strengthened and enforced, the number of sexual harassment claims may continue to rise. The best response is to plan for the increased numbers, and implement procedures to handle these cases quickly and decisively—until sexual harassment in the workplace is eliminated entirely. 

About the Author

Lisa Sigler is Senior Manager, Content Development at MicroPact.