Inside the EEOC’s Strategic Plan

The EEOC’s new Strategic Plan features a heightened focus on sexual harassment and a commitment to education.
By: | February 28, 2018
Topics: Employment Law

In a move that Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic called a “significant step toward realizing our vision of respectful and inclusive workplaces,” the Washington-based commission released its Strategic Plan for fiscal years 2018 to 2022.

The sweeping document serves as a framework for achieving the agency’s mission to prevent and remedy unlawful employment discrimination and advance equal opportunity in the workplace. The plan lays out three strategic objectives for the next four years: Combat and prevent employment discrimination through the strategic application of EEOC’s law-enforcement authorities; prevent employment discrimination and promote inclusive workplaces through education and outreach; and achieve organizational excellence.

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Admittedly, the strategic objectives did not change substantially from the last version of the plan, according to Cynthia Pierre, chief operating officer of the EEOC. The primary differences lie in the agency’s desire to move beyond simply laying out goals to actually providing employers with recommendations they can utilize to prevent discrimination in the workplace.

“In this plan, we target ways to improve inclusiveness, not just in terms of goals or strategies for our litigation and case investigations, but also internally, in the things we want to model in the workplaces that we advocate for,” says Pierre. “We wanted to not just talk about diversity and inclusiveness, but also provide education to employers and employees about exactly what it means to create workplaces that are respectful and inclusive and to prevent discrimination where we can.”

While much fanfare has greeted the release of the new Strategic Plan, it’s important to remember it’s not a standalone document, says J. Randall Coffey, a partner in the Kansas City office of Fisher Phillips. Rather, it goes hand-in-hand with the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan, a more detailed roadmap of the agency’s top areas of focus for 2017 to 2021.

One of the commission’s continuing priorities is combatting sexual harassment, a focus that has been intensified in light of the #MeToo movement. While the EEOC’s Select Task Force on Harassment predated the widespread scandals of 2017 by one year, Pierre says a number of elements were incorporated in the new Strategic Plan specifically to address the critically important workplace issue.

Terms such as “unlawful harassment” were deliberately inserted, as was the commission’s commitment to rigorously and consistently implement the Strategic Enforcement Plan, which includes the objective of preventing systemic harassment and ensuring equal-pay protections.

The agency launched a new Respectful Workplaces training module last fall, intended to improve civility and respect in the workplace with the goal of reducing harassment of all kinds. And while the last Strategic Plan was “heavy on systemic investigation and litigation,” Pierre says, the new plan seeks to take a more balanced approach by pursuing individual cases as well.

The commitment to outreach and education laid out in the new Strategic Plan is key to combatting workplace sexual harassment, says James Plunkett, senior government relations counsel in the Washington office of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart. The number of calls and emails to the EEOC alleging sexual harassment have increased dramatically, says Plunkett, leading to the growing need for education and guidance as employers seek to comply with the law and decrease incidents of sexual harassment in their workplaces.

“The rise of incidents and allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace coming to the forefront has really elevated the EEOC to a position of prominence,” says Plunkett. “This has become their raison d’etre.”

With the Republican domination of the 2016 elections, some organizations have come to view the political winds as more employer-friendly, says Plunkett. However, he says, the new Strategic Plan makes it clear the EEOC is actively investigating and enforcing the laws under their jurisdiction, so employers must take these matters seriously.

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“Sometimes, in D.C., you hear, ‘Republicans are in charge of the White House and the Senate and the House, so it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card for employers,’ ” says Plunkett. “That’s not the case at the EEOC. This new plan makes it clear they are going to enforce the law and interpret the law as written, and they are not just going to close their doors for the next three years.”

Thus, HR’s challenge continues to be keeping up with the law and with the EEOC’s outlook, particularly with regard to those areas of focus laid out in the Strategic Plan and the Strategic Enforcement Plan.

“It’s always a challenge to figure out how to reduce the barriers to inclusiveness,” says Pierre. “For HR, it’s about figuring out ways to be helpful in their companies in terms of closing the gap between the agency’s goals and policies toward diversity and the steps they are taking to make sure the barriers are reduced and that people are feeling included and provided equal services and access to opportunities within the workplace.”

Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter, covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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