The BE HEARD Act Will Overhaul Workplace Harassment Laws

For more than a decade, Tarana Burke and survivors across the country have used #MeToo to share their experiences of sexual violence, raise women’s voices, and respond to the needs of survivors. In its current incarnation, #MeToo has sparked an unprecedented examination of sexual harassment, including sexual assault, in our workplaces, and illuminated the multiple manifestations of workplace discrimination.

In the midst of this historic reckoning, the ACLU and coalition partners drafted and shared with members of Congress a blueprint— our Principles and Priorities for Legislative Action to Eliminate Workplace Harassment — for addressing the scourge of discrimination in every workplace across the country.  We said it was long past time that Congress confront the reality that our current laws had not done enough to stamp out harassment and discrimination, especially for our most vulnerable workers – those in low-wage jobs (who are predominantly women of color), those facing language barriers, and undocumented workers.

Finally, the voices of survivors and advocates reverberate in the halls of Congress this week with the introduction of a comprehensive and visionary piece of legislation: the Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination in the Workplace Act (BE HEARD in the Workplace Act).

This bill strengthens and expands the reach of our nation’s antidiscrimination laws, removes barriers that prevent individuals from accessing justice, and helps employers create harassment-free workplaces—while also holding them accountable when they fall short.  Some of the legislation’s key provisions are described below.

It extends civil rights protections to all.

Until now, the prohibition against employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act has only applied to businesses with more than 15 employees; individuals who work alone, or in small workplaces like domestic workers have been virtually unprotected. But this law would extend those protections to all employees regardless of business size, as well as to those who don’t fall under the category of “employee,” including independent contractors, volunteers, interns, fellows, and trainees. The bill also provides LGBTQ workers with protection from employment discrimination.  

It gives survivors of sexual harassment a fair chance in court.

For the past 30 years, federal caselaw has required survivors to prove the harassment was “severe or pervasive” to prevail in court, an often unattainable standard that was unrelated to Title VII’s requirement that the conduct alter the terms or conditions of employment. Under this standard, even conduct like a supervisor squeezing an employee’s breast might not be enough to prove harassment. The BE HEARD in the Workplace Act offers a detailed roadmap for judges and employers to follow in identifying what conduct does and does not constitute unlawful harassment. This specificity will give much-needed guidance to the federal courts, which too often have excused objectively abusive conduct in the workplace, depriving victims of harassment of relief, and dissuading other from seeking legal redress.

It limits secrecy and promotes transparency.

Harassment and other forms of discrimination thrive in the shadows and are often perpetuated by agreements workers are forced to sign before taking a job that require discrimination claims to be decided in secret arbitration proceedings rather than in court. The bill would also prohibit employers from demanding that workers sign blanket non-disclosure agreements upon accepting a job.

It restores protections for workers harassed by supervisors.

In 2013 the Supreme Court held that an employee bringing a legal challenge against harassment by her supervisor had to meet a higher burden of proof if the supervisor could not fire, demote, promote, or transfer the employee – even if the supervisor did have the power to control her daily life at work, what duties she performed or the number of hours she was assigned. The bill would fix this incorrect interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and make it easier for employees to hold employers liable for supervisor harassment.

And it assists employers in creating harassment-free workplaces.

The bill authorizes research and data collection on workplace harassment and provides employers with model policies and trainings, best practices tailored to specific industries, and model workplace climate surveys to expose unreported harassment.

A work life free from harassment, violence, and other forms of discrimination must no longer be out of reach.  Our laws can require it, our employers can impose it, our culture can foster it, and every working person can demand it.

The BE HEARD in the Workplace Act moves us closer to that reality.  There is a great deal of work ahead, but we are in it for the long haul — starting today.

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Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

Me too. I was sexually harassed on the job. The owners of the company I worked for used to bring their dogs to work with them. One of them tried to hump my leg. I had to barricade myself in a cubical with office chairs to keep him away.

Anonymous

We need to find a way to extend these protections and remedies to members of the military. We are left hanging .

Anonymous

I’ve been the target of workplace harassment in the lowest form all bc I reported unethical behaviors to HR Manager. Took place just before our performance reviews and management decided i needed significant improvement resulting in NO RAISE. I’ve been hit with a series of attacks since then; I’ve had to endure harassment in ways that are vile and disruptive to my life to my environment to my mind and my soul. By the time I realized what has been happening , thinking about all the subtle slights and then all the lies that come to the forefront of your thoughts...it’s hard not to feel betrayed. I’m mad at myself for believing that I was no longer a target. My negative rating affected my ability to advance the first time. For at least three years. I’ve been through this before. So when it happened a second time, I was HURT. My health and well being has been affected and I can feel my body breaking down for living in a continuously high stressful situation. I have regressed in my mental state back to the condition I was in when Upper Management started the behavior. Bc I am in a high stressful situation, and have to continue to work in my environment, my body has suffered tremendously! I have resorted to walking with a cane bc my body is starting to break down from the stress I am enduring. I am in school again which was supposed to help advance my career but with a dishonest negative review, my chances for advancement have just plummeted. My manager said it’s no big deal but the review is one of the conditions that push you to the front of the line. Someone is being conditioned to go full time as I type this...again, male, younger, inexperienced. I want to be heard bc I stood up against unethical behavior in the work place and now I am paying the ultimate price. It’s killing me inside, I’m disgusted that people can display such atrocities towards other people. What is the point of business human relations and policy if I don’t hold HR to a higher standard? People are having their paychecks/hours altered lost stolen deleted and it’s OK? It’s the same people that have been doing it to others for longer than 7 years without repercussions. Something HAS to change. What I am experiencing shouldn’t be a condition to live and have the enjoyment to afford me to live the most basic human life. The right to work free from harassment and discrimination. I’ll take the hits until they’re exposed....As long as I wear Gods Armor and my faithful prayers I can create change but in order to do that I have to #BeHeard

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