EEOC Reports Increase in Sexual Harassment Complaints and Enforcement Actions

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, has reported an uptick in enforcement as it responds to #MeToo complaints of unlawful harassment in the workplace. The numbers are large enough that employers should take notice.

According to data released Oct. 4, 2018, the EEOC filed 66 harassment lawsuits, including 41 that included allegations of sexual harassment. That reflects a more than 50% increase in suits challenging sexual harassment over fiscal year 2017. Additionally, charges filed with the EEOC alleging sexual harassment increased by more than 12% over the same time period.

Those figures may not sound high, but the dollar amounts associated with them certainly are. In the last year, the EEOC recovered nearly $70 million for victims of sexual harassment, through litigation and administrative enforcement in FY 2018, up from $47.5 million just a year earlier.

Despite widespread publicity, education campaigns, and mandatory workplace training, complaints continue to pour in to authorities against blue-collar and white-collar employees alike. Some, like a recent complaint filed with the EEOC against Ernst & Young, a Big 4 accounting firm, contain allegations of clearly illegal conduct, such as commenting on women’s breasts and holding business meetings with clients at strip clubs.

While many employers have clauses in their employment contracts mandating that such complaints are handled through arbitration rather than litigation, employees are beginning to challenge those agreements and are bringing their complaints in public. There is also a move in some state legislatures to try to ban secret settlements when the underlying allegations assert sexual assault or harassment. Both of these trends place increased pressure on employers.

The bottom line for employers: assume that any dirty laundry will be exposed, and take action now, before claims are filed or government officials are forced to act. Don’t wait for matters to explode before you contact labor and employment counsel. There are ways to resolve matters before claims are filed. Few plaintiffs welcome the publicity their allegations will entail. This is by far the most sound course of action.