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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dropped a big flaming bag of poo on the American doorstep yesterday in the form of a damning and extensive report on workplace harassment. Of the 90,000 complaints the agency handled last year, one third were related to harassment on the job — and when the agency dug deeper into the numbers on the subject, it found disturbing results. The United States is in the grip of a workplace harassment crisis, and it's one that's almost entirely invisible.
Among the protected classes subjected to harassment, the top three targets of workplace abuse were women (including trans women), people of color, and disabled people. 45 percent of reported incidents involved "sex-based harassment," another 34 percent were instances of racial harassment, and 20 percent hit disabled workers. The EEOC also documented age-based harassment (15 percent of cases), discrimination on the basis of national origin (13 percent), and religious discrimination (five percent).
Many of the stories related in the report are harrowing, including those of people of color who were subjected to continual streams of racist harassment, and employees who were retaliated against for reporting. The detailed findings paint a grim picture of the American working landscape, with harassment so ubiquitous among some groups (LGBQT people in particular face astoundingly high rates of harassment) that it seems like part of the cost of going to work.
The EEOC has worked tirelessly for decades to advocate for worker protections, and harassment has always been a big concern for the agency. It's fought to expand the number of protected classes, for example, and to obtain more funding to study harassment — an issue they hammered on again in this report, as they pointed out that they couldn't even paint a complete picture of the situation because they lacked the data they needed.
The EEOC has also attempted to promote safety for workplace whistleblowers, making it easier and more secure for them to speak out about their experiences on the job in the hopes of rooting out harassment and other illegal practices in the workplace.
What this study shows is that despite the EEOC's efforts, it hasn't been enough, at both private and government workplaces. The agency's task force conducted a conference on Monday to explore the report in detail, articulate its recommendations, and provide a starting point for rethinking the way we approach harassment, but it left a few things out.
Some of the recommendations were both quite sensible and rooted in practices already advised by organizations that work on issues like diversity and inclusion. They included establishing a policy of zero tolerance for harassment, providing bystander intervention training, improving research, responding promptly to harassment complaints, establishing strong and comprehensive anti-harassment policies, and reaching out to youth.
These measures are all important, and they will make a difference in the workplace. But they don't get at some of the fundamental problems driving these harassment levels, because this behavior originates somewhere. Clipping it back on the job may be good for damage control, but it really needs to be taken on at the roots, and that requires pulling back a bit to see why people think harassment is an acceptable behavior at work.
It's not just that workplaces have historically tolerated harassment without comment, creating an environment that almost seems to cultivate it. It's also that the underlying attitudes that drive abuse remain unchanged. Those attitudes come from social signaling outside the workplace, and that signaling is what people carry with them in their daily lives.
This is a country where discrimination against LGBQT people is so normalized that multiple states are passing bills telling people where to use the bathroom. In that climate, it's easy to understand why so many trans people report being harassed, quizzed about their transition status, and even physically assaulted at work — state governments are sending the message that this is perfectly acceptable behavior.
It's also a country where cis women's most fundamental rights are routinely limited by regional and state governments. When a government is asserting ownership and control over their bodies, it's not surprising that people internalize the message that it's appropriate to harass them. If the state passes a law requiring doctors to perform and narrate ultrasounds to patients seeking abortions, for example, it sends a pretty unmistakeable message about autonomy and ownership for cis women, who make up the bulk of abortion patients. If Congress refuses to pass fair pay legislation, that too sends a signal.
Immigrants, too, are marginalized by law. Whether it's presidential candidates calling for their exclusion, legislators limiting the number of refugees who can enter the country, or private detention facilities locking people up without due process of law, immigrants are heavily marginalized in the United States. Maybe they're being raped in the strawberry fields by controlling overseers who threaten them with deportation if they don't comply, or they're being taunted by coworkers in the tech industry — immigrants have a position as easy targets because authority figures have made them that way.
Meanwhile, Muslims are persecuted in the government and in the media — no surprise, then, that they should experience harassment on the job. Older adults are also heavily marginalized, making it unsurprising that people over 50 are often treated harshly at work. Similarly, disabled people are demonized and marginalized in the public landscape, turned into objects rather than people. Those who are fortunate enough to find employment — the disability unemployment rate is twice that of nondisabled people — find themselves treated like freaks and curiosities on the job.
Systemic racism is also deeply entrenched in U.S. society, whether it's police profiling young Black men, model minority myths, racial disparities in education access, or a host of other issues. When people internalize the message that people of color are lesser, they're going to take that into the workplace with them, and it will make people of color targets for abuse on the job.
Harassment at work endures because of poor processes for confronting and handling it, but it also exists because society has cultivated a landscape of discrimination and oppression. When people absorb negative messages about other humans, they can't magically switch those messages off when they go to work.
The results of those messages play out in ugly and repetitive ways as people interact with coworkers — if you wake up and read a news story about how trans women are predators threatening children, how are you going to react when you find out that your coworker is a transgender woman? If you attend a film that asserts disability is worse than death, how is that going to color your interactions with disabled coworkers? If you hear a political candidate screaming about Muslim terrorists, will that influence your conversation with Aisha in accounting?
Especially among liberals, people like to pretend that it's possible to override social programming, rise above, and be a Good Person. But that's not how humans work, and the EEOC study highlights the consequences of living in a society where people tolerate and sometimes actively cultivate inequality and marginalization. The EEOC's recommendations should all be implemented, but it's time to think bigger, too, and to acknowledge that these recommendations are reactionary, not preventative.
Photo: WOCinTech Chat/Creative Commons