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Internal Workplace Harassment Claims Surge Amid #MeToo

Apr 4, 2019 / News Item / Law360 — Alison Noon

Workers who experience harassment on the job have increasingly spoken up to their employers since the advent of the #MeToo movement in late 2017, according to a report released Thursday that provides a rare look at how the campaign has fared in the private sector.

The number of internal harassment complaints fielded through Navex Global, a leading provider of corporate compliance services and whistleblower hotlines, surged by more than 25% from 2017 to 2018 and made up 8.5% more of all complaints last year than in 2017.

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The study is designed to give the 15,000 companies that use Navex online, phone and record-keeping services, as well as other employers, an idea of how they stack up. It showed that, among the roughly 2,500 employers that received 10 or more complaints through Navex annually, harassment issues composed 4.62% of all complaints in 2016, 5.03% in 2017 and 5.46% in 2018. 

Those 2,500 companies employed a total of 44 million workers who filed more than 1 million workplace complaints in 2018. A record-high 56,400 of them were primarily related to harassment, according to Navex’s annual benchmark report.

The overall reporting rate for all complaints remained constant during that time, at 1.4 complaints per 100 employees.

The report also showed a sizable 18% increase in the frequency of discrimination complaints, but 2017 was a slow year in that category and the jump brought reports of discrimination back to their 2016 level of 4% of all complaints.

Experts said the increasingly robust internal reporting environment shows that a fundamental shift is occurring in people’s tolerance for harassment.

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Weiss and several other employment and compliance attorneys told Law360 they expect the upward reporting trend and broader implications of #MeToo to continue for at least another year, if not longer. Weiss said the trend has already outlasted what many of his biggest clients expected.

Michelle Phillips of Jackson Lewis PC’s diversity and inclusion committee said mounting state action requiring workplace harassment training may be contributing to the uptick in harassment reports. If more employers commit to providing adequate training and then investigate and remediate the resulting complaints, those efforts could contribute to additional complaints and extend #MeToo, Phillips said.

“Because companies are paying greater attention to this training, that’s also creating an atmosphere where people feel more comfortable bringing these complaints,” Phillips said. “Each time they reaffirm the culture of zero tolerance, that’s going to encourage more people to come forward.”

Weiss believes the movement has outlived expectations, in part because there are nuances surrounding harassment that society had yet to hash out. He said the concept of #MeToo has been evolving, and each turn brings a new set of complaints, legal concerns and work for firms like Seyfarth helping employers get  through them.

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Like internal complaints, there was a spike in claims filed with federal regulators last year. The EEOC projected a 12% uptick but ultimately received 13.6% more sexual harassment complaints in the year after the Weinstein watershed moment, the agency said in October.

Feldblum, who joined Morgan Lewis from the EEOC in February, said the Navex data indicates “both employees and employers are being shaped by the movement in a very positive way.” Employers are increasingly likely to provide a platform for complaints, and employees are increasingly likely to use it, she said. That gives compliance professionals and lawyers more work.

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