Excerpted from a Fisher Phillips blog

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) just released its preliminary findings examining sexual harassment in the workplace over the past year, and, in wake of the #MeToo movement, no one should be surprised to see the figures rise dramatically. The numbers demonstrate that employers need to be more vigilant than ever when it comes to addressing issues of harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Raw Data: Explosion in Claims, Attention and Recovery
The FY2018 numbers aren’t yet official; the EEOC’s Office of Enterprise Data and Analytics has to validate them before they can be finalized. But even if the final statistics are adjusted slightly in the near future, Wednesday’s EEOC data release presents stark evidence that the #MeToo movement is not just a passing fad. Among the most significant statistics that should capture the attention of every employer:

• Sexual harassment charges with the EEOC increased by more than 12 percent from FY2017. This represents the first increase in such charges in five years—and a massive increase at that.

• The EEOC’s litigation attorneys filed 41 separate sexual harassment federal lawsuits on their own, which is more than a 50 percent increase from the previous year.

• Reasonable cause findings in sexual harassment cases increased from 970 to nearly 1,200, an increase of over 23 percent.

• Successful conciliation proceedings (a formalized mediation process run by EEOC personnel) jumped from 348 to nearly 500, a 43 percent increase.

• In FY2017, the EEOC recovered $47.5 million for the victims of sexual harassment through administration enforcement proceedings and litigation. In FY2018, that number increased to nearly $70 million, a leap of over 22 percent.

• Finally, one of the more interesting statistics demonstrates the heightened interest that the general public has when it comes to sexual harassment. The EEOC reported that website visits to its sexual harassment page more than doubled over the past year.

What’s Next?
Given the increased interest and awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, it was no surprise that the EEOC announced late last year that it was putting the finishing touches on updated guidelines on the subject for the first time in over 20 years. Acting EEOC Chair Victoria Lipnic acknowledged that “the update comes up at a time of burgeoning publicity for sexual harassment and assault in the workplace,” though she said the timing of the update was “purely coincidental.”

After several years of drafting and editing, which included incorporating public opinion on key issues, the Commission unanimously approved the new guidelines in early November 2017. The draft guidelines—some 70 pages in length—were then sent to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, with an expectation that they would be quickly approved and released to the public. Almost a year later, we’re still awaiting the guidance’s release.

The reason for the holdup is uncertain. Acting Chair Lipnic told Bloomberg Law in June that she has been “very persistent in trying to move it along,” but the guidance remains mired in administrative red tape. Some suspect that the delay is political in nature, as the White House awaits the seating of a new EEOC General Counsel and two Republican nominees to the five-person Commission. If that’s the case, it’s unlikely we will see any movement until after the midterm elections, and possibly until next year’s Congress begins its 2019 session.

What Should Employers Do? A 5-Step Plan
The delay in the guidance’s release is no excuse to sit idly by and wait, however. As the raw statistics described above show, the modern sexual harassment revolution is in full swing. For that reason, we recommend that you immediately implement a five-step plan to address this issue before you become another statistic.

Step One: Make Sure Your Policies Match Modern Standards
If you haven’t updated your sexual harassment policy in the past several years, you might be behind the curve. Recent court decisions have placed greater responsibility on employers to establish policies that address sexual harassment in a more realistic and thoughtful manner. At a minimum, your policy should clearly indicate that you have “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment in any form. You should clearly define the term and provide examples of conduct that would run afoul of your standards (including, for example, boorish behavior, off-color jokes, unsolicited hugs or shoulder rubs, sharing pornographic images, etc.) so that there is no confusion.

Your reporting policy should encourage employees to report their concerns about potential harassment immediately. You should also provide several avenues for the employee to provide their report, whether through their immediate manager, a human resources representative, another manager, or even a hotline number or intranet reporting mechanism. Finally, your policy should clearly guarantee your workforce that they will not face retaliation as a result of their report. Providing this level of safety and security is important if you truly want to foster an open and respectful atmosphere.

You can read the full post here.