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Quick Hits

  • The EEOC issued a final version of new guidance for employers clarifying its positions on the applications of federal laws prohibiting harassment and retaliation.
  • The new guidance is the first update to the EEOC’s workplace harassment guidance since 1999 and incorporates several new developments in the law and modern workforces.
  • Key to the new guidance is that it recognizes unlawful harassment against LGBTQ+ individuals and addresses workplace protections for “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions,” including “lactation.”
  • The new guidance took immediate effect upon issuance.

The new guidance, “Enforcement Guidance on Harassment in the Workplace,” clarifies the EEOC’s position on several key issues following its receipt of nearly 40,000 comments in response to its proposed guidance published on October 2, 2023.

“The EEOC’s updated guidance on harassment is a comprehensive resource that brings together best practices for preventing and remedying harassment and clarifies recent developments in the law,” EEOC Chair Charlotte Burrows said in a statement released with the new guidance. 

In that regard, the final guidance aligns with the Supreme Court of the United States’ 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia—wherein the prohibition under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against gender discrimination was held to include claims predicated on sexual orientation and gender identification—and recognizes potentially unlawful workplace harassment against LGBTQ+ individuals. The final guidance also addresses another key area of focus, that is, workplace protections for “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions,” including “lactation” in accordance with the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) and Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act (PUMP Act), and the EEOC’s final guidance on the PWFA issued on April 15, 2024.

While claims of harassment represented more than a third of all discrimination charges filed with the EEOC between fiscal years 2016 and 2023, the Commission has not updated its guidance on harassment since 1999. The final guidance consolidates and replaces the EEOC’s five guidance documents issued from 1987 through 1999. 

Significant for employers, the final guidance provides more than seventy hypothetical examples of potential unlawful harassment, including examples reflective of today’s modern workforce with both hybrid and remote workers and widespread use of electronic communication and social media.

Covered Harassment

The EEOC made several key updates to what it considers covered harassment under Title VII and other federal antidiscrimination laws.

Race and Color

The new guidance expands the EEOC’s explanation on potential harassment based on “color” under Title VII, separating it out into its own section that was not included in the proposed guidance. The guidance states that while discrimination based on color is “sometimes related to harassment based on race or national origin, color-based harassment due to an individual’s pigmentation, complexion, or skin shade or tone is independently covered by Title VII.”

The guidance provides an example of potential color-based harassment where a supervisor harasses Black employees with “darker complexions” and not Black employees with “lighter skin tones,” even though they are all of the same race or national origin.

Pregnancy, Childbirth, or Related Medical Conditions

The guidance states that harassment based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions “can include issues such as lactation; using or not using contraception; or deciding to have, or not to have, an abortion,” if that harassment “is linked to a targeted individual’s sex.” The new guidance adds multiple hypothetical examples of such harassment not included in the proposed guidance, including a situation where employees make negative comments about a pregnant employee who is allowed to “telework up to three days per week and utilize flexible scheduling” as an accommodation for “pregnancy-related morning sickness.” Another example highlighted a situation where negative comments are directed toward a female worker who expresses milk in the lactation room at work and other inappropriate behavior, namely a male worker knocking on the door of the lactation room and feigning intent to enter the room. 

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The new guidance explains the EEOC’s view that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is a form of unlawful sex-based discrimination under Title VII, including epithets, physical assault, “outing” (meaning disclosing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity without permission), or other harassing conduct toward individuals because they do “not present in a manner that would stereotypically be associated with that person’s sex.”

Further, the guidance identifies as potential harassment the “repeated and intentional use of a name or pronoun inconsistent with the individual’s known gender identity (misgendering); or the denial of access to a bathroom or other sex-segregated facility consistent with the individual’s gender identity.” Importantly, the final guidance requires some intentional or knowing behavior, that is “repeated and intentional” misgendering based on an individual’s “known” gender identity. (Emphasis added.)

Genetic Information

The new guidance further clarifies the EEOC’s understanding of unlawful harassment under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) as applying to “harassment based on an individual’s, or an individual’s family member’s, genetic test or on the basis of an individual’s family medical history.” For instance, the guidance states that such harassment could include harassing an employee “because the employee’s mother recently experienced a severe case of norovirus, which resulted in overnight hospitalization.”

Retaliatory Harassment

The final guidance includes a new section that addresses the concept of “retaliatory harassment.” The guidance clarifies the EEOC’s position that “retaliatory harassing conduct” may still be challenged as unlawful retaliation “even if it is not sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of employment by creating a hostile work environment.” The EEOC explained that the legal standards for hostile work environment and retaliation are different as the anti-retaliation provisions proscribe a broader range of behaviors, namely, “anything that might deter a reasonable person from engaging in protected activity.”

Intraclass and Intersectional Harassment

The guidance includes examples of “intraclass” harassment where the harasser is in the same protected category as the individual being harassed. One hypothetical involves a fifty-two-year-old supervisor making derogatory comments toward a sixty-five-year-old employee as an example of harassment based on age, even though both individuals are over the age of forty. “Intersectional” harassment refers to situations where individuals are targeted based on their membership in more than one protected category. In one example, the hypothetical raises a situation where a male manager made comments to a female worker about her having a “hot flash” and being menopausal. The EEOC explained that such targeting based on “stereotypes about older women is covered as both age and sex discrimination.”

Reporting Procedures, Complaint Process, and Training

The proposed guidance outlined the “minimum” features of an effective anti-harassment policy, the “minimum” features for an effective complaint process, and the “minimum” features for effective anti-harassment training. The final guidance eliminates the “minimum” language, but the features of each are substantively the same otherwise.

As it concerns remedial measures, the Commission removed language from the proposed guidance that seemingly recognized the “fewer options” available to employers when faced with instances of harassment perpetrated by nonemployees, harassment toward employees working at client locations as is common for temporary staffing agencies, or harassment arising from off-duty conduct. In its place, the final guidance simply provides that employers have an “arsenal of incentives and sanctions” available to them to address harassment, but those options “may vary depending on who engages in the conduct and where it occurs, among other considerations.”

Next Steps

While the final guidance is likely to face legal challenges in the courts, employers may want to review their workplace policies and practices, particularly in light of potential liability for discrimination or harassment against LGBTQ+ employees. Additionally, employers may want to note differing state or local laws and state or local agency guidance that differ from Title VII and other federal laws enforced by the EEOC.

In addition to the new guidance, the EEOC published a “Summary of Key Provisions” document and a fact sheet for small businesses, with more information for employers.

Ogletree Deakins will continue to monitor developments and will provide updates on the Diversity and Inclusion and Employment Law blogs as additional information becomes available.

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