Harassment Is Running Rampant In American Workplaces


Almost as soon as Laudente Montoya started his job as a mechanic in Wyoming, he was met with insults. His supervisor called him and another coworker “stupid Mexicans,” “dumb Mexicans,” “worthless Mexicans,” and “spics.” The harassment wasn’t just limited to Hispanic workers, either; Montoya says he overheard him calling others “nigger,” “lazy Indian,” and “wagon burner.”

“Working that job was one of the worst times in my life,” he said. “It became so that I could hardly bring myself to go to work in the morning because I hated working with him so much.”

But when Montoya decided to do something, he was the one who ended up in trouble. When he told his supervisor that he shouldn’t talk to employees that way, the supervisor responded, “Welcome to the oil fields. That’s how they talk here.” When he and his coworkers complained to an area manager, the manager didn’t do anything about it. They finally decided to lodge a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — and then Montoya lost his job.

It became so that I could hardly bring myself to go to work in the morning.

But his is a common story. In a report released on Monday by the EEOC’s co-chairs, there are other stories like his. Contonius Gill, a North Carolina truck driver, was called “nigger,” “monkey,” “boy,” and “coon” by his white managers and coworkers, while one approached him with a noose and said, “This is for you. Do you want to hang from the family tree?” Jacquelyn Hines, a single mother in Tennessee working as a temporary worker for a logistics company, suffered sexually explicit comments and vulgar gestures from her supervisors, while other female coworkers endured physical harassment. But when both Gill and Hines spoke up about their treatment at work, they lost their jobs.


Sexual harassment was recognized as a form of illegal discrimination 30 years ago with the landmark Supreme Court case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, and harassment based on sex, race, ethnicity, religion, and disability have since been clarified as illegal. Yet nearly a third of the charges the EEOC received last year against private employers or state and local governments were complaints of harassment — about 28,000 of 90,000, which comes to about 76 harassment charges a day, a figure that the authors of the report say has remained steady over the years. On top of that, 6,741 harassment complaints were filed by federal workers, making up 43 percent of all federal employee complaints.

But even these figures significantly undercount the extent of the problem given that they only capture the number of people who decide to do something when confronted with harassment. “The least common response to harassment is to take some formal action — either to report the harassment internally or file a formal legal complaint,” the report notes. Studies have found that only about 30 percent of people who experienced it talked with a higher up or a union representative — meaning about 70 percent didn’t even talk to someone about it. An even smaller share, or between 6 and 13 percent, filed a formal complaint. Instead, most people resort to avoiding their harasser, denying or downplaying what happened, or trying to endure or forget the problem.

The victims say they fear that if they take action, they won’t be believed, no one will do anything about it, or they will suffer retaliation. And as the stories of Montoya, Gill, and Hines demonstrate, those fears are grounded in reality. One study from 2003 found that three-quarters of employees who spoke out about mistreatment faced retaliation. Despite high-profile Supreme Court cases and cultural moments like the Anita Hill hearings, gender and sexual harassment is still the most prevalent form that employees report. Forty-five percent of the charges the EEOC received last year from employees as private companies or state and local governments were on the basis of sex. Different surveys have found different shares of women reporting having experienced sexual and gender harassment, but those with representative sampling found that without defining sexual harassment about 25 percent of women say they’ve experienced it, while with a definition such as unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion 40 percent say yes. When women are surveyed about whether they have experienced sexist or offensive behavior, researchers have found it’s the most common form of harassment — nearly 60 percent of women report experiencing it.

But other forms of harassment are still prevalent and, as the report notes, less well studied. The EEOC has recognized harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity as a form of sex discrimination, something that between 7 and 41 percent of LGBT individuals, depending on the survey, say they have undergone. About a third of EEOC complaints in 2015 alleged racial harassment, and while there are fewer employee surveys about it, between 40 and 70 percent report racial and ethnic harassment.

It’s this prevalence of harassment that inspired the report and the task force that was convened on the issue early last year. “Six years ago, when we came to EEOC as commissioners, we were struck by how many cases of sexual harassment EEOC continues to deal with every year. What was further striking to us were the number of complaints of harassment on every other basis protected under equal employment opportunity laws the Commission deals with today. We are deeply troubled by what we have seen during our tenure on the Commission,” EEOC Commissioners and Co-Chairs Chai Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic write in the report. “With legal liability long ago established, with reputational harm from harassment well known, with an entire cottage industry of workplace compliance and training adopted and encouraged for 30 years, why does so much harassment persist and take place in so many of our workplaces?”

The least common response to harassment is to take some formal action.

One reason is that a focus on anti-harassment training mostly hasn’t worked to prevent it from happening — “it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability,” the report says. But even better training that is tailored to specific workplaces, empowers other coworkers to step in when harassment is going on, and focuses on promoting respect and civility in the workplace won’t do the trick alone.


Instead, it’s about the environment inside each office or factory. “Workplace culture has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish, or conversely, in preventing harassment,” the report notes. And there are some key predictive factors where harassment flourishes: workplaces that lack diversity, those that have strong norms that a minority of workers might not fit into, those with cliques where an influx of different workers come in, those with “rain makers” or high value employees who are seen as untouchable, those with significant power disparities between different groups of workers, those where employee compensation is directly tied to customer satisfaction such as tips or commissions, and those that are isolated or centralized.

Even as harassment continues to be prevalent, workers may be seeing their avenues for recourse disappear. A 2013 Supreme Court ruling narrowed the definitions of what sexual harassment cases can go forward, leading many to be thrown out, while another one in the same session erected barriers for victims of racism, sexism, or other discrimination. And even the EEOC, which recovered $164.5 million for workers alleging harassment last year, has been hampered by funding constraints handed down by Congress.