EEOC Issues Updated Workplace Harassment Guidance

EEOC Issues Updated Workplace Harassment Guidance

Posted on: June 18th, 2024 by Leaders' Choice Staff No Comments

For the first time in 25 years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued updated workplace harassment guidance for employers, increasing possible exposure to employee-initiated lawsuits.

The new guidance expands employee protections to include harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as taking into account that harassment can be perpetrated virtually via text messaging, e-mails and other online or app-based mediums.

These are federal guidelines, meaning that they open a new avenue for potential employment practices liability exposure. Employers should understand this new guidance to ensure they don’t run afoul of the law and risk being sued by a worker.


Sex-based harassment

The new guidance expands the definition of sex-based harassment to include harassment related to breastfeeding, morning sickness, contraception and the decision to obtain — or not obtain — an abortion.

It also expands protections to include harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. An example of the latter would be an employer intentionally and repeatedly using a name or pronoun that is inconsistent with the worker’s gender identity, or denying access to bathrooms that are consistent with their identity.


Virtual harassment

The guidance notes that harassment does not have to be perpetrated in person to be illegal.

It states that harassment can also occur in the “virtual work environment,” such as through the company e-mail system, electronic bulletin boards, instant message systems, videoconferencing technology, intranet or official social media accounts.

The EEOC stated that while off-duty offensive social media posts sent on work systems generally don’t constitute harassment, they may if they impact the workplace, such as if the postings are directed at a particular employee or employer and are referenced at work.

The agency also stated that even if offensive material is sent while off-duty on non-work systems, like using personal phones or tablets to text harassing messages or making derogatory posts on their own social media accounts, it could be considered illegal.


The takeaway

The EEOC has designated workplace harassment as an enforcement priority.

Employers should update their anti-harassment policies and procedures in their employee handbooks to reflect the changes to EEOC guidance. Managers and supervisors should be trained in the new guidance as well.

The EEOC recommends that anti-harassment policies, at a minimum:

  • Define what conduct is prohibited, and be widely disseminated;
  • Be comprehensible to workers, including those whom the employer has reason to believe might have barriers to comprehension, such as limited literacy skills or proficiency in English;
  • Require that supervisors report harassment when they are aware of it;
  • Offer multiple ways to report harassment;
  • Identify points of contact to whom reports of harassment should be made, including contact information; and
  • Explain the employer’s complaint process, including the anti-retaliation and confidentiality protections.
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