EEOC: Workplace sexual harassment 'persistent problem,' 'hugely under-reported'

In Alabama there were 233 EEOC charges alleging sexual harassment in 2016.

A federal report found 85 percent of harassment victims in the workplace never file a legal charge. 70 percent never even complain to a manager. Why not? Experts say a primary reason is fear of retaliation.

Birmingham Attorney Cedrick Coleman says many believe it would never happen to them, so they judge others motivations for coming forward. "When you're living paycheck to paycheck you are willing to look past some things," says Coleman.

Those days may be coming to an end. "I hope now organizations realize you can no longer dismiss a victim and cover for the harasser," explains Jacqueline Thorp, CEO at Train Me Today. She says any training program to stop harassment must have buy in from senior management. "The president of the company has to be the driver." She says training is most effective with real talk about real situations in group settings, not those outdated online videos full of legal jargon.

A 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Task Force report found workplace harassment a persistent problem which is hugely under-reported.

In Alabama there were 233 EEOC charges alleging sexual harassment in 2016. Claims from women totaled 206. 23 came from men. The remainder were not available.

The legal definition of sexual harassment is very narrow and sets a high bar. "It has to be severe and pervasive conduct that permeates the workplace," explains attorney Rima Hartman.

While some harassment falls short of the legal claim, Hartman says it should still be reported to management who must create a culture of zero tolerance. "Comments, slurs, jokes, emails, things that make you uncomfortable," must not be ignored advises Hartman.

And while it may be common in southern culture to give hugs and pats on the back, attorneys say it's not a good idea on the job. "In my survey 33 percent of people in the workforce, their number one complaint is they don't want to be hugged or touched," says Thorp.

A complaint can start with your Human Resources Department or directly with the EEOC which works as a neutral fact finder. You must file within 180 days, of the alleged violation.

To learn more visit the agency's website HERE.

Take a look at the Task force's 2016 report HERE.

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