GAO finds few reliable estimates for true extent of workplace sexual harassment

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Everybody talks about the problem of workplace sexual harassment. But hard facts about its extent and frequency are difficult to find. That makes estimating the costs of harassment problematic. The Government Accountability Office has found few reliable estimates. For more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the GAO’s managing director for education, workforce and income security issues, Cindy Brown Barnes.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Barnes, good to have you back.

Cindy Brown Barnes: Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: So this is a little bit surprising that something that is so much on people’s minds, especially in the MeToo aftermath and so on, that there’s not that good a statistical base for what’s going on in the workplace. What have you found?

Cindy Brown Barnes: Well, we’ve found that few reliable data exists, but the available data on sexual harassment comes from a few sources. At the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission collects data on charges that were filed against the employers. But since these data only reflected charges that work as filed, they do not speak to the overall prevalence of sexual harassment. In addition, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health surveys US workers about workplace sexual harassment every four years as part of the General Social Survey. And for federal workers, specifically the Merit System Protection Board has collected that on sexual harassment for most federal workplaces. At the private level, the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank, and other researchers have also surveyed workers. But generally this information has been used in form a general understanding of the prevalence of sexual harassment, with the hopes of influencing workplace policies and practices. That is why collecting accurate data is so important.

Tom Temin: Well, you’ve really got two ways of collecting data that you’ve described. One is reports that are filed. And that has to be pretty accurate because something discrete happened. Surveys, though, are hard to verify, because it’s just anonymous self reporting. And so how do you reconcile the fact that you have on one hand reported incidents you can count their case loads, versus the survey type of input?

Cindy Brown Barnes: The surveys have different question structures. So that’s one thing depending on how you ask the question, whether it’s based on a set of behaviors, those types of surveys usually have higher response rates. But then they’re also charges that are actually filed. And not everybody that experienced workplace sexual harassment, actually filed the charges. And we found actually, that there’s some surveys that report that less than 6% of people who have experienced sexual harassment actually filed charges.

Tom Temin: So there’s a big gap there. And there’s also then a big potential gap in the workload that could potentially come to the places like the EEOC, and you looked at their data gathering and their statistical base. What are some of the findings with respect to the EEOC?

Cindy Brown Barnes: With respect to the EEOC, we found that they do as the primary federal organization that emphasizes and is responsible for anti-discrimination laws and in investigating those, as well as for private sector organizations. We found that they actually are responsible for investigating these claims. And we found that they have an increased workload with respect to retaliation charges, but they do not have a way to systematically collect retaliation charges that are related to prior sexual harassment claims and protected activities. And we made a recommendation along those lines that will look at their analysis to better understand the extent to which these charges stem from their retaliation charges stem from for prior sexual harassment charges.

Tom Temin: So there’s almost a feedback loop that’s not quite closed yet with respect to the initial filing of charges by an employee of sexual harassment, and then how much of that results in retaliation, which is almost a separate problem in and of itself.

Cindy Brown Barnes: Yes, the retaliation charges that are not related to sexual harassment charges. But what we were looking at the EEOC is in the process of updating their data systems and our recommendation to them was to look at the feasibility of being able to or the extent to be able to look at the charges, the retaliation charges, that stemmed from prior sexual harassment charges or related protected activity. And what this does this will be able to allow the EEOC to analyze protected activities that underlie retaliation charges, which could help illuminate the relationship between sexual harassment, reporting and retaliation.

Tom Temin: What would be required of them to be able to get that kind of data?

Cindy Brown Barnes: They are in the process now of updating some of their systems and it would just be adding that capability to be able to look at these in that type of detail to be able to attach a specific retaliation charge systematically to a prior sexual harassment charge or the related protected activities.

Tom Temin: Did you find it a little surprising maybe that that particular feedback didn’t happen, that particular piece of counting did not happen, given how many reports of retaliation we see in surveys, and an anecdotal evidence that people who file charges because of sexual harassment then end up retaliated against, almost like whistleblowers do?

Cindy Brown Barnes: And that’s why we believe is important for them to have this capability to be able to. with all the other data and responsibilities that they do have, to be able to have this additional capability in their systems.

Tom Temin: So the EEOC then would cover not only federal workplace cases of this, but all workplace cases of this across the country.

Cindy Brown Barnes: Yes, the EEOC specifically does cover private charges, state and local governments, as well as federal. They’re actually responsible for overseeing federal EEO programs.

Tom Temin: Got it. And what role might the Merit Systems Protection Board have in all of this? Would their role change at all?

Cindy Brown Barnes: The Merit System Protection Board has done a number of studies looking at federal workplaces, and they’ve collected data on sexual harassment for most federal workplaces. And in the past, they even collected some cost data, but I have not collected any recent information that was back in the 90s in terms of cost.

Tom Temin: And there might be an effect, I guess, and I think your report talks about that at some point, that entities that commit retaliation to follow on acts of sexual harassment knew that that was all being counted, that in itself might reduce the number of retaliation cases. True?

Cindy Brown Barnes: Well, one, it would have to be reported. And that’s one of the things that we talk about. There a couple of things there. One, not all sexual harassment rises to the legal definition to be able to file these types of claims or charges or complaints. And then there’s also behaviors, offhanded remarks, jokes, cartoons, those kinds of behaviors that are workplace sexual harassment as well, but do not rise to that legal definition to be able to file certain types of complaints, but workers still have other avenues that they can rely on. Certainly they can file with the employer, they can file with their union, they can also report it, as we’ve been saying, private to the EEOC, they can file charges with the police. So they have some avenues if they choose to report it.

Tom Temin: And finally, GAO did a pretty, as you mentioned at the beginning, comprehensive look at the literature, the survey activity, you mentioned not only MSPB but also NIOSH and some private sector or nonprofit sector Pew surveys. And is your sense, is the GAO’s sense that this is a problem that is still on the rise?

Cindy Brown Barnes: This is a problem. One, as we’ve been talking about this the little reliable data that exists. Second, we know the cause of sexual harassment. So both the employer and employee at large but there haven’t been any recent assessments of costs. We were able to identify some common types of costs associated with sexual harassment based on our little peer review and our discussion with experts. And these costs fall into four broad categories. There’s the health costs. And these include things like depression, anxiety, there’s productivity costs, absenteeism, reduce performance and decrease job satisfaction. There are also career costs. And these include costs associated with changing jobs or employee turnover. And one reporting in legal costs, which include legal fees and the time costs for filing and processing complaints, and expensive settlement and litigation awards. For example, the EEOC data showed that employers have paid over $500 million in monetary relief for sexual harassment charges and litigation cases. And this is from a period of 2009 to 2018. One other thing that we did in this work is we talked to a number of experts that had backgrounds in survey administration, as well as survey methods to collect data. And these experts suggest that there are options for various levels of federal involvement, including having the federal agency collect data with a private organization, as well as looking at sampling across a variety of work settings, and looking at the different data that needs to be collected and analyzed.

Tom Temin: And could that collecting agency be EEOC or could it be someone else potentially?

Cindy Brown Barnes: It certainly could be EEOC. We’ve assembled a panel of experts working with the National Academy of Sciences. We also had representatives from agencies and they included the EEOC as well as the Department of Labor and others. And yes, EEOC is positioned to be able to collect this type of data.

Tom Temin: So basically, to get a good handle and start to really stamp out this particular situation, you have to have good numbers on where and the frequency that is occurring.

Cindy Brown Barnes: Yes, you do. The bottom line is the workplace sexual harassment can damage the health, career and well being of its victims, and can cost businesses, not only in legal fees, but in lost productivity, job satisfaction and talent. There isn’t a good understanding of this exact pervasiveness and cost to workers and employees. But understanding the full extent of workplace sexual harassment prevalence in class is important, since such behavior not only violate state or federal laws but has wide ranging effects on victims and businesses.

Tom Temin: Cindy Brown Barnes is managing director for Education, Workforce and Income Security issues at the Government Accountability Office. Thanks so much for joining me.

Cindy Brown Barnes: Thank you for having me.

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