Feds say employers should offer leave, flexible work to harassment survivors

Employers and workers have a variety of resources with which to combat gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace, federal regulators said during a virtual event Thursday.

Deborah Pascal, senior program analyst at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, defined this category of workplace misconduct — abbreviated GBVH — as “a range of unacceptable behaviors and threats thereof, whether it is a single occurrence or repeated, that each result in or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm.”

Addressing GBVH involves reckoning with its root causes, namely gender stereotypes and norms, Pascal said. The topic is broader than sexual harassment alone and concerns aspects of power as well as sex, along with related issues like domestic violence, she added.

Thursday’s webinar represented a joint outreach effort by DOL and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in an effort to mark Mental Health Awareness Month and National Women’s Health Week, both of which occur in May. 

Employers can take measures to mitigate workplace GBVH such as providing survivors leave, flexible work arrangements and temporary protection from dismissals, Pascal said. GBVH and domestic violence also may be included in workplace risk assessments, and employers can refer employees to public mitigation efforts on these topics.

Leave program expansions have been a focus for HR departments in recent years, with employers rolling out paid safe days for domestic violence survivors, as well as miscarriage leave, parental leave and caregiver leave. The industry also has seen an uptick in discussions about support for menopausal employees particularly in an effort to attract and retain women.

Federal laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act also apply to employees who are survivors of or who have experienced domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault or stalking, said Maria Flores, outreach program coordinator for EEOC.

Flores gave the example of an employee who is fired after her employer learns that she has been subjected to domestic violence and “fears the potential drama that battered women bring into the workplace.” Title VII’s prohibition on disparate treatment of employees on the basis of their sex, including sex-based stereotypes, would apply in this scenario, Flores said.

In another example, a co-worker sits uncomfortably close to a female employee in meetings, makes suggestive remarks, repeatedly calls her after work hours and stalks her. The employee reports the behavior to her employer, and the employer responds by transferring the co-worker to another area of the building, but the co-worker continues the behavior and no further action is taken. This scenario would implicate Title VII’s anti-harassment provisions, Flores said.

EEOC published updated enforcement guidance on workplace harassment in April that included, among other items, changes related to sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination as well as harassment in the context of virtual work environments. Weeks later, several states sued EEOC in federal court, alleging that its guidance unlawfully expanded Title VII.