Chicago Aims to Abolish Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

 Amanda Scott

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2024

Sexual harassment in the workplace is prohibited in Chicago. To further instill this message, in April 2022, Mayor Lightfoot and the Commission on Human Relations amended the sexual harassment laws (Human Rights Ordinance) to provide sharpened tools to employers and employees for preventing sexual harassment. These amendments strengthened the existing laws in strictly enforcing zero tolerance of violence and harassment in the workplace through written employment policies, posters, and training. Starting July 1, 2022, strict compliance with these amendments became the standard throughout Chicago.

Background on sexual harassment in the workplace

Workplace sexual harassment is quite common, yet rarely reported. It has been recorded that sixty percent of women have experienced unwanted sexual attention, sexual coercion, sexually crude conduct, or sexist comments in the workplace. Among those that experience sexual harassment  in the workplace, under fifteen percent file a formal legal charge and about thirty percent never even make an internal complaint. The impact of this harassment is real and damaging, causing lasting effects on employees who are victims to the conduct. It has been reported that employees who experience sexual harassment in the workplace are more likely to suffer psychological symptoms of PTSD, depression, stress, anxiety, headaches, and sleep problems. By curbing the amount of sexual harassment in the workplace through more aggressive legislature, a more inclusive and safer environment would be fostered for all.

Broad amendments

Key amendments were made to the existing sexual harassment laws. Among these changes is an enhanced definition of sexual harassment. This definition now explicitly includes sexual misconduct. “Sexual harassment” is now defined under the Ordinance as:

…any (i) unwelcome sexual advances or unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature or (ii) requests for sexual favors or conduct of a sexual nature when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, or (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for any employment decision affecting the individual, or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment; or (iii) sexual misconduct, which means any behavior of a sexual nature which also involves coercion, abuse of authority, or misuse of an individual’s employment position.

Further, the amended law expanded the period in which notification is given to the respondent. The new law transitioned the deadline from ten days to thirty days, with the hope of mitigating retaliation against the claims such as a denial of a reasonable accommodation request. The amendments also include an increased length of the statute of limitations. Victims are now granted an entire year to report all forms of discrimination. This extended the pre-existing statute of limitations by sixty-five days. An additional change is the implementation of annual training. The training now includes one hour of sexual harassment prevention for all employees, two hours for supervisors and managers, and one hour of bystander training for all employees. These training programs are specifically designed to meet the individual needs of employers. Another instrumental amendment is the increased penalties. There is now a $5,000-$10,000 fine per violation for all forms of discrimination. The previous penalty was $500-$1,000 per violation. As this is a significantly larger penalty, it is accompanied by hope that it will disincentivize any form of discrimination.

Written policy requirement

Part of the amendment includes a provision stating that all Chicago employers must have a written policy documentprohibiting sexual harassment. This written policy requirement is crucial because it is what provides the employees with information that can help them feel more protected in the workplace. There are several requirements for this document.  It must state: sexual harassment is illegal in Chicago; the new, expanded definition of sexual harassment; a requirement that all employees participate in the mandated training; examples of sexual harassment prohibited conduct; instructions for reporting internal allegations; and a statement that retaliation against reports of sexual harassment is illegal in Chicago. This document is required to be distributed to employees within their first week of employment and in their primary language. Through providing this explicit information it is hopeful that employees will feel safe and discouraged from participating in any discriminatory behavior.

Who is impacted?

All employees and employers within the city of Chicago are required to comply with these amendments. According to the Human Rights Human Rights Ordinance, employers are defined as “any individual, partnership, association, corporation, limited liability company, business trust, or any person or group or persons that provides employment to one or more employees in the current or preceding calendar year and any agent of such an entity or person” that are subject to Chicago licensing requirements or maintain a business facility within city limits. According to the ordinance, the employee is defined as “an individual who is engaged to work within the geographical boundaries of the City of Chicago for or under the direction and control of another for monetary or other valuable consideration.”

Through the implementation of these amendments, employees in Chicago are better equipped to handle sexual harassment claims and feel more protected in their workplace.

Effectiveness of change

Assuming the city implements meaningful enforcement efforts, these amendments will hopefully lead to a decrease in sexual harassment in the workplace given that they will force employers to be accountable for improved policies, will educate employees on steps they can take to report harassment, and will hopefully deter people from harassing others. I suspect the amendments will also incentivize employers to develop an increased awareness of what goes on in their workplace. Further, by more employees being educated on the steps available to them to report sexual harassment, the length of time that harassment goes on will hopefully be significantly decreased. Ultimately, these amendments are, no doubt, a step in the right direction for Chicago.