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UMass Report Details Costs Employees Face in Reporting Workplace Sexual Harassment

AMHERST — Employees who file sexual harassment complaints often face harsh outcomes, with 65% losing their jobs within a year, and 68% reporting some form of retaliation by their employer, according to new research from the UMass Amherst Center for Employment Equity (CEE).

In their report, “Employer’s Responses to Sexual Harassment,” co-authors Carly McCann, Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, and M.V. Lee Badgett analyzed more than 46,000 harassment claims sent to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state Fair Employment Practices Agencies (FEPAs) from 2012 to 2016. These cases represent only a small amount (0.2%) of the estimated 25.6 million experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace that occurred over this same five-year window.

“Since the legal standards are high, it is not surprising that only a very few file a charge,” said McCann, a UMass Amherst doctoral student and CEE research assistant. “The good news in the report is that the EEOC clearly takes sexual-harassment discrimination charges seriously. These charges are more likely to be found legally plausible, and the charging party is more likely to receive benefits, than other discrimination charges. At the same time, only a minority receive any benefit, and a majority lose their job and experience employer retaliation, so not filing a charge may also make economic and social sense. There are often severe negative consequences to filing a charge, and most people who do file a charge receive no benefits.”

Even among the 27% of cases that did result in a benefit, redress was typically unsubstantial. The most common benefit — and the result of 23% of total charges that proceed through the agencies’ processed cases — was financial compensation; however, the average settlement of $24,700 (with a median amount of $10,000) is unlikely to make up for the economic cost of job loss. The discrepancy between the average and median amounts is due in large part to a handful of high-profile cases. Large monetary settlements are very rare, with only 1% of those who received monetary compensation exceeding $100,000.

Just 12% of the total charges led to managerial agreements to change workplace practices. As the report notes, this lack of accountability often engenders further incidents of harassment. 

“Most employer responses tend to be harsh both via retaliation and firing employees who complain,” said Tomaskovic-Devey, professor of Sociology at UMass Amherst and CEE founding director. “The very low proportion of employees who file sexual-harassment complaints is very likely to be related to employers’ typically punitive responses.”

While these numbers represent averages across all cases filed with the EEOC or FEPAs, gender and race influenced both the number and outcome of cases. 

“Although they comprise 47% of the labor force, women file 81% of sexual-harassment charges,” McCann said. “Black women, in particular, report a disproportionality large percentage of workplace sexual-harassment charges; they account for 7% of the labor force but file 27% of sexual-harassment charges.”

The researchers have also considered what may be done to help those who experience sexual harassment in the workplace, given the often disappointing outcomes of the legal route.

“Sexual harassment, and perhaps discrimination of all types, should be addressed proactively and affirmatively by management, rather than leaving it to the targets of discrimination to pursue legal remedies as individuals,” said Badgett, a professor of Economics and Public Policy at UMass Amherst. Following recommendations given by the EEOC, the authors also advocate having workplaces address sexual harassment internally through better managerial training and programs that train employees to identify and address harassment incidents.

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