Reason for decreased discrimination, harassment reports unclear

By Opinions Editor

Illinois saw a significant drop in the number of workplace harassment and discrimination charges in 2013, but the state still ranked fifth highest in the nation for such complaints.

While the number of complaints filed decreased nearly 13 percent from 2012–2013, Illinois managed to tally more charges than 45 other states in 2013, according to a 2013 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report. The EEOC report showed that Illinois employees filed 4,617 reports in 2013, down from 5,490 in 2012. Sexual harassment, unwanted sexual advances, and discrimination, the act of taking action against a person based on personal characteristics, are illegal under state and federal law.

The decrease in reports can be attributed to businesses’ increased efforts to educate employees on what constitutes harassment and how to address it, said Jimmy Lin, vice president of product management and corporate development at The Network, an organization that provides governance, risk and compliance solutions to help companies foster more ethical workplaces.

“Instilling strong ethics in employees from day one is crucial in establishing an ethical workplace that’s free of harassment and discrimination,” Lin said in an email.

The nation’s falling unemployment rate can also be credited for the reduction, according to Suheily Davis, a senior associate for Ford & Harrison, LLP, a Chicago law firm that represents companies in harassment and discrimination cases. With fewer people being laid off today than during the height of the economic downturn, employees are filing fewer reports of wrongful termination on the basis of discrimination, she said.

“I think that people tend to report anything, even if they’re not really sure that it’s discrimination,” Davis said. “I don’t think people are reporting less—I’d like to think that there’s just less occurring for them to report.”

Each state has a Civil Rights Commission set up to protect employees’ rights to file complaints. Illinois’ Human Rights Commission investigates discrimination complaints based on race, color, religion, sex and national origins, among other characteristics. However, just because the Human Rights Commission works to protect individuals from harassment does not mean investigations will necessarily rule in favor of the person who filed the complaint, noted Craig Matthews, a prominent employment practice litigation attorney in Ohio.

“These are large state agencies that [are] subject to limited funding, and as a result, they’re overworked,” Matthews said. “You’ve got a small, limited staff of investigators that are covering many dozens of complaints that don’t have time to really do the work.”

Matthews said the drop of 0.5 percent in sexual harassment reports from 2011–2013 is the result of employers infringing on staff members’ rights, thus leading to fewer incident reports. The number of reports fell 1.8 percent from 2011–2012 but crept back up 1.3 percent in 2013. Matthews said the most recent drop may be due to employers limiting their staff members’ abilities to file the complaints.

“I don’t think there’s less sexual harassment going on,” Matthews said. “I think if there’s lower reporting, it’s because employers are making it more difficult now to prove the sexual harassment … and they’re getting rid of employees that make claims of sexual harassment on both sides.”

Although Illinois follows the national trend of declining discrimination and harassment reports—the national rate fell 5.7 percent from 2012–2013–not all states can say the same. The EEOC report ranked Texas first in harassment and discrimination charges, with 9,068 complaints filed in 2013, compared to 8,929 in 2012.

The leading causes for such charges vary by state: 38.8 percent of Illinois’ total reports were cases of racial discrimination, compared to New Hampshire, where the leading cause was sex discrimination at 26. 9 percent. Some categories also overlap because some offenses can be classified multiple ways.

The most consistent charge nationwide was retaliation, which occurs when an employer punishes an employee for non-performance related actions, accounting for more than 28 percent of total charges in every state. Davis said the large number of retaliation reports is mostly a result of human nature. If an employee files a report and then sees a negative reflection in his or her next performance review, their most likely assumption is that their employer is punishing them for filing a complaint, resulting in retaliation complaints, she said.

“There’s a hypersensitivity that some employees might have after filing a charge that will put them on edge and give them a little bit of additional concern about how their performance will be evaluated moving forward,” Davis said.

Davis said many Chicago employers she interacts with are unaware of the importance of sensitivity and anti-harassment training, adding that they do not grant much priority until after they are hit with a few charges. However, as more employers participate in sensitivity seminars and implement anti-harassment and discrimination policies, the number of charges may continue to drop, she said.

“[Reports] work to improve the workplace for everyone else,” Davis said. “If someone filed a charge, that’s a chance for the employer to really evaluate and say, ‘Did we drop the ball?’”