In December, Microsoft announced it will no longer force secrecy in sexual harassment claims through the contract clause called forced arbitration. Going forward, Microsoft’s contracts will have this section removed.
What is forced arbitration?
For too long women, and men, subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace have been unable to take the matter to trial due to this clause. This results in fewer public trials and smaller settlements for the victims as claims are mediated through a third party without the ability to go to court. Just as troubling, forced arbitration hides what may be a widespread or ongoing problem within an organization from public knowledge.
Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, said, “By doing this, Microsoft is saying that it’s going to take concrete steps to make its workplace culture more conducive to addressing and preventing harassment. That message is important above and beyond the impact on individuals whose contracts are about to change.”
Martin further stated, “While Microsoft apparently didn’t use these provisions across its workforce, some companies use them more indiscriminately across their workforces to bind lower-wage workers as well as higher-wage workers. By standing up and saying that it believes that these provisions aren’t fair to employees, Microsoft helps change the conversation in a way that has the potential to help a lot of people by increasing the pressure on companies to do the same.”
Will this change sexual harassment claims?
This is a step in the right direction, however approximately 60 million American workers have these arbitration clauses in their contracts, and according to a study by the Employment Rights Advocacy Institute for Law & Policy, 80% of America’s 100 largest companies use them.
While changing the clauses and culture in the large companies would make a huge impact, working in a small company may still bind employees to forced arbitration in the event of sexual harassment. These companies could be fearful of lawsuits that would put them out of business and are not nearly as visible as a company such as Microsoft. Therefore, they will probably not face media disapproval in the same way and are not willing to take their chances in a court of law just to avoid negative publicity. For them, the forced arbitration clause is an insurance policy.
Legislators see need for reform
In December 2017, a bipartisan group of lawmakers called for legislation to end forced arbitration for sexual harassment claims in the workplace. Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat from Illinois sponsored two pieces of legislation: H.R.4734 and H.R.4570. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat from New York, also backs the bill. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, called on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to support the bill. Both bills were referred to the subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law.
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