By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer
HARTFORD – While other areas of the nation saw a significant decrease in workplace harassment and discrimination complaints, the number of complaints in Connecticut has increased, according to a 2013 report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Connecticut workers filed 294 harassment and discrimination charges in 2013, a six percent increase over the previous year.
Experts say Connecticut’s spike in discrimination and harassment in the workplace might be misleading. There may be many more cases than reported.
“Although the numbers indicate that there is a decline in some states, we can not be remiss to notice that the numbers are still high in many areas. There have been some significant climbs such as in the state of Connecticut,” said Isaura Gonzalez, a licensed Clinical Psychologist in New York. “These numbers might also not be truly indicative of the greater problem at hand because many employees chose to handle the situation by not making complaints and removing themselves altogether from the situation.”
According to the EEOC website, any form of discrimination and harassment in employment violates the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. These kinds of harassments include “unwelcome behavior that is severed and pervasive enough to create an intimidating, hostile and abusive environment.” And if they are based on race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, age, these behaviors violate federal laws.
Although discrimination and harassment in employment are prohibited by law, the number of complaints have been increasing since it was first implemented. The categories with the most complaints in 2012 was race/color and disability. Age and gender follow respectively, according to the state’s five-year report. Retaliation for filing complaints is also significant.
The state’s increase is unlike other parts of the nation, which saw a decrease in workplace harassment and discrimination. And because the economy is still fighting its way back from the Great Recession in 2007, experts say some employees may have opted to stay put and stay silent about discrimination and workplace bullying.
“It is no secret that in difficult economic times, employees tend to stay at their jobs, even if they experience harassment or workplace bullying. When things get bad enough, they file complaints with the [Connecticut Human Rights and Opportunity agency] CHRO,” said Bloomfield Attorney Shawn Council. “A decade or two ago, harassed and bullied workers would change jobs but not now. They cannot do so as easily. Instead they sue for peace of mind, an end to the harassment/bullying and perceived future workplace stability.”
Others say the spike in Connecticut’s number of complaints could be a false positive. That’s because as more people become aware that there is recourse and that protections are available, they feel safer speaking up.
“In the past too many people were afraid to even say anything if they were being harassed for fear of making things worse,” said Walter Meyer, author of the novel Rounding Third and a nationally recognized anti-bullying advocate, which delves into the issue of bullying and suicide. “Without more research it would be hard to say if what appears to be a spike in occurrences is really just an increase in reporting.”
Meyers added that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference among bullying, harassment and discrimination. But in many cases, the nature of the harassment is undeniable.
“If someone is being bullied because they are gay or black or a woman, it can cross the line to all three,” he said. “In most states, including Connecticut, there are clearer protections from harassment or discrimination on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation and other factors.”
Tara Fisher is a conflict resolution specialist based in New York. She said bullying doesn’t always end on the playground and employers can learn how to recognize and eliminate workplace bullying. In her article on how to mitigate workplace bullying, she points out the nuances of different workplace bullying cases, saying:
“Workplace bullies are a very real and common drain on productivity and morale in many companies. In fact, according to a 2010 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 35 percent of workers have experienced bullying firsthand. Men and women are culprits as well as victims. Sixty-eight percent of bullying is same-gender harassment. When women are the bullies, they target other women in 80 percent of cases.”
Fisher also said that workplace bullies may humiliate targets, spread rumors or gossip, or in extreme cases, stalk or threaten targets.
And much like children and teens, Fisher said, adult bullies also may recruit other adults who prefer to be friends rather than foe with bullies. These complicit observers will also support the bully’s efforts to harm targets, thus further isolating victims.
Many experts agree with Fisher, saying discrimination, harassment and bullying can have a significant and lasting impact on the victims and on their employers. Victims’ health and work performance suffer. They may have health problems such as headaches, difficulty concentrating, depression, and sleep and anxiety issues.
Also, victims may fear meetings, office activities or even going to the workplace. So their work performance often suffers.
According to Jimmy Lin, Vice President of Product Management & Corporate Development at The Network discrimination and harassment continue to rise in the workplace because of the lack of proper training companies provide employees. Too often, companies just hand employees a 200-page book about code of conduct and do little or no other training.
Technology has also added another dimension to the discrimination and harassment, and the number of cyber bullying among adults have also increase and complicated the nature of work in America. Connecticut businesses and other organizations, he said, could turn this trend around by having more training in place.
“Preventing harassment and discrimination in the workplace needs to start with a solid policy. Managers also need to know how to deal with these issues and when to escalate them,” Lin said. “Incidents are often buried by middle managers who do not respond properly or by the time issues escalate, are afraid to get additional help from above. A comprehensive workplace harassment training program needs to include periodic education and ongoing awareness communications – it can’t be viewed as a “once and done” exercise.”