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Here’s what happens when someone wants to sue for sexual harassment

When a worker wants to sue over sexual harassment, they must first file a complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In light of the conversation around the #MeToo movement, the number of complaints are expected to spike substantially. Judy Woodruff talks to Victoria Lipnic, acting chair of the EEOC, about the challenges women face.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, sexual harassment in the workplace.

    We have spent time talking about what may change in light of the conversation around MeToo. One of the questions up for discussion is what happens when workers file complaints with the government. Anyone who wants to bring a lawsuit must first file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, or an equivalent state agency.

    Last year, more than 6,700 harassment complaints were filed. That’s expected to spike substantially this year. And there remains a backlog of cases.

    Victoria Lipnic is the acting chair of the EEOC. She also co-authored a major report on harassment in the workplace.

    Victoria Lipnic, welcome to the NewsHour.

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    Good to be with you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what is the roll of the EEOC, generally, in protecting the rights of American workers?

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    The EEOC is the federal civil rights agency that enforces all our federal anti-discrimination laws in employment.

    So, sex discrimination, race discrimination, disability discrimination and sexual harassment would fall under the sex discrimination.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So how would a complaint about sexual harassment end up at the EEOC?

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    So, an individual would come to any one of our 53 offices across the country, and they would file what we call a charge of discrimination.

    Once they file that charge of discrimination, then we serve that charge on their employer, and then we take steps to either try to mediate it or investigate it and, ultimately make some determination about the charge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But they have to have already — before they come to you, they have to have already gone to their employer. Is that correct?

  • Victoria Lipnic:

     Right.

    As a matter of case law, they need to go to their — make a complaint internally to their employer, and their employer should take action to investigate the complaint of discrimination, of harassment and, once they do the investigation, make some determination about some corrective action.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So even if there’s no human resources department with that employer or if the employer himself is involved in the harassment, you’re saying they have got to do this?

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    They need to do that before they come to the EEOC to file a charge with us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So once they come to the EEOC, how complicated a process are we talking about?

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    Well, first, when they filed the charge with us, the first thing we will do, once we serve the charge on the employer, then we will ask if the parties want to mediate, and mediation in front of the EEOC is voluntary, so both parties have to agree to it.

    We have a pretty high success rate in terms of mediation, when both parties come to the table. We had a pretty high success rate last year in sexual harassment cases.

    But…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In mediating.

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    In mediating them, correct, right.

    After — if they decide not to mediate or if mediation fails, then the EEOC conducts an investigation, and that can take quite some time, because, at that point in time, we are getting a response from the employer, we are interviewing witnesses, we may be getting documents, if that’s necessary.

    We’re doing a full-blown investigation at that point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But I was reading some of the research that suggests that most people who experience harassment don’t go to this trouble. I mean, they end up either giving up or quitting.

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

     Is that correct?

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    That is correct.

    And, you know, the problem, first of all, it takes a lot of wherewithal for anyone to file a discrimination charge with the federal government. That is even more so when it’s a case of harassment, particularly sexual harassment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Because they have to hire a lawyer. They have got to put out money to do this, right? It’s an expensive, time-consuming process.

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    And daunting. It’s a daunting process.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it may be threatening to their career as well.

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    Well, that’s one of the big things that we know from the study we did about harassment last year in a report that we issued, that the biggest reason that people do not come to the EEOC — and, honestly, three out of four people don’t even file — go to their own employer internally, we know from the research, because they fear for what will happen to them.

    Either they will be retaliated against within their own company, or no one will believe them in the first place.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You were telling me earlier that a number of states, or, in fact, most states, have their own equivalent of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So people do have that option as well.

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How much of an increase in complaints have you seen, Victoria Lipnic, since the Harvey Weinstein revelations came out in early October?

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    Well, it’s a little too soon for us to tell in terms of actual charges of discrimination filed with the EEOC on harassment.

    But we have seen about a four-fold increase of people going to our website, looking for information about — specifically about sexual harassment. Now, we are expecting that much of that will ultimately be turned into charges filed with us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

     So what advice to you give people? If you hear from someone in some — however way they can communicate with the EEOC that they can’t get the help they need through their own human resources department, what do you suggest that they do?

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    Well, certainly, we want them to file a charge with us, if that’s the case. They ultimately are coming to us if they have been dissatisfied with what process has taken place with their own employer.

    But they should also contact private legal counsel, to begin with. From the minute they’re starting the process, they will get a lot of support and a lot of advice along the way, if they do that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So this has to have been a pretty serious claim for them to call and get a lawyer and then think about going to a federal agency.

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    Yes.

    I mean, it is not easy for anyone in any type of employment situation to, you know, file some claim against their employer. And again, that is particularly so in sexual harassment situations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you believe more people should be taking formal action, or should they be — should there be more ways to resolve these cases informally in the work environment?

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    Right.

    I think it has to be a combination of both. So one of the things that we found, and the reason that we put a task force together almost three years ago to look into this issue, is that liability as a cure for harassment has not worked particularly well, and that there have to be other things that are explored as a prevention measure.

    Most people who are in a situation where they are being harassed at work, what they want more than anything is for the harassment to stop. They’re not thinking they want a lawsuit or that they want to go to the federal government about it. They want some immediate corrective action.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So if the threat of liability on the part of the employer isn’t enough, what is going to be enough?

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    Well, we need a sea change in how all of this is approached.

    There are a number of things that we made recommendations about a year ago, five sort of core principles. There has got to be leadership from the top in an organization. There has to be demonstrated accountability. They have to have policies in place that are communicated to people, so they know what to do. They have to have procedures in place that are trusted by the employees.

    And there has to be training, but training that is meaningful, training that explains to people how to deal with harassment situations in their own workplace and what to do if they are experiencing it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

     And just quickly, is it your sense that these things are happening now because of all these revelations?

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    They certainly have been happening for the last 30 years in different measures, depending upon the employer.

    What I think we’re seeing now — and certainly we hope that we will see more so at the EEOC — is that there is much more attention and there is much more vigilance about all of these sort of holistic efforts that need to take place within an organization that, you know, may be taking place piecemeal now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Victoria Lipnic, a huge subject we’re discussing.

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    Indeed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The acting chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, thank you.

  • Victoria Lipnic:

    Thanks for having me.

     

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