The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces U.S. anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, urged government agencies to ensure that harassment of employees is kept out of virtual work environments, as well.

Since fiscal year 2018, more than half of federal sector EEOC complaints included an allegation of harassment, which can be offensive jokes, slurs, threats or interference with work, for example.

The latest technical assistance document, published Thursday, builds on previous best practices issued in 2017 and tailors them to federal agencies, which are bound by federal civil rights laws and EEOC directives but may benefit from these additional recommendations to ensure all agencies interpret harassment, prevention and reporting the same way.

“One of the most important goals of an effective anti-harassment program is to address unwelcome conduct before it escalates or become severe or pervasive,” said Marqui Willoughby, an EEOC attorney advisor, in an interview. “With the growth of remote and virtual work within the federal sector, we thought it was important to specifically address harassment via virtual platforms or through telework and remote working.”

The document also makes clear that anti-harassment is not just human resources’ responsibility, said Willoughby. While it is up to designated, trained personnel to ensure proper handling of EEOC complaints, it’s also the expectation that managers and supervisors support that process once they become aware of a problem.

The document urges agencies to ensure that social media and technology are not vehicles for harassment of an employee. It dispels the notion that anonymous harassers will not, or cannot, be found on the employee network during an investigation.

Agencies should also make sure employees know how to report incidents if that process is now fully online due to the pandemic acceleration of digital processes, the document said.

Harassment trends

Harassment is costly to the federal government in more ways than just millions in settlement agreements. It beleaguers the workforce, which can aggravate turnover and bleed the hiring process. It can result in months of investigations by agencies that pull attention away from other work.

Sexual harassment in particular is tracked by the Merit Systems Protection Board. Its recent report found that though federal employees are less likely to experience such harassment today than they were 20 years ago, approximately 14% of employees between 2014 and 2016 experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment.

“Many employees who experience harassment take no action — such as telling the harasser to stop or filing a formal complaint — believing that an action might be futile or even worsen the situation,” said MSPB Chairman Cathy Harris in a memo accompanying the report.

At the EEOC, complaints have fallen steadily since 2010 but the average time it takes to close formal complaints has risen. Among complaints, reprisal, age, physical disability, race (Black/African American), and sex (female) continue to lead all other bases in discrimination.

Looking at just 2019, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs led 270 agency offices with the most EEOC complaints, followed by the Department of the Army, USPS Southern Area, Department of the Navy, and Social Security Administration, according to agency data.

And in 2020, federal agencies spent $3.7 million on pre-complaint settlements, $51.6 million on investigations, and $66.5 million in monetary benefits for findings of discrimination and complaint-stage settlements.

So, what to do?

Agencies may feel overwhelmed by all the tips recommended by EEOC, especially if their current policies are collecting dust. Willoughby said while agencies aren’t required to abide by the additional recommendations, the EEOC is available to help draft and review policies.

“This is a big deal,” Willoughby said. “Harassment is a huge allegation in the EEO process, in general and agencies.”

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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