EEOC Hearing: Make Anti-Harassment Training More Effective

By Allen Smith June 16, 2015

Not all types of anti-harassment training are equal.

Eden King, an associate professor of psychology at George Mason University, outlined before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) June 16, 2015, some of the characteristics of more successful anti-harassment training.

Training is most likely to be effective, she testified before the EEOC Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, if it:

  • Lasts more than four hours.
  • Is conducted face-to-face rather than online.
  • Includes active participation with other trainees on interdependent tasks.
  • Is conducted by a supervisor or external expert.

Additionally, research conducted by King has concluded that:

  • The business case alone isn’t sufficient to create change. Rather, pairing business and social arguments is more successful.
  • Training has the most positive benefits on those who need it the least, not the ones who are the most biased.
  • Demonstrating that trainees are themselves biased can build motivation for training. But the awareness that all people have biases should be paired with the knowledge that most people are trying to overcome their biases. Awareness alone actually might increase bias by making it seem normal.

Goal Setting

Goal setting can enhance training, King added. She said:

  • Trainees who set specific, challenging and attainable goals about diversity are more likely to change their behaviors to meet their goals than those who do not set goals. Such goals might include attending lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) events or evaluating resumes without looking at names.
  • Trainees whose mentors or supervisors also set goals about supporting the trainees are especially likely to change their behaviors.
  • Behavior change resulting from goal setting might facilitate attitude change.

Empathy and Civility

It also helps to have trainees participate in a brief writing activity in which they try to adopt the perspective of a stigmatized co-worker. This exercise can result in trainees experiencing more empathy and better attitudes and behaviors toward the stigmatized group, King noted.

As for standing up to harassers, research shows that bystanders can be more effective in confronting prejudice than the targets of harassment themselves, she said.

However, Lilia Cortina, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, had a word of caution about drawing lessons from studies on harassment, saying, “It is important to note … that each of the training studies conducted to date has evaluated a completely different sexual harassment training program, limiting generalizing and making it difficult to arrive at definitive conclusions.”

That said, Cortina called for an emphasis on civility, remarking that “incivility might sometimes act as a sort of ‘gateway drug,’ being a precursor to more egregious forms of workplace abuse.”

Policies, Anti-Retaliation Provisions

Two things that have been shown to lower harassment rates are well-crafted anti-harassment policies and employee handbook anti-retaliation provisions, testified Louise Fitzgerald, a professor emeritus of gender and women’s studies and psychology at the University of Illinois.

Anti-harassment policies should provide employees with avenues to address their complaints but too often are drafted by attorneys in overly legalistic prose, Fitzgerald asserted. And frequently “they’re buried in handbooks and forgotten,” she added.

The policies need to communicate to employees that the “organization takes this issue seriously,” she said.

As for anti-retaliation provisions, they are “one of the most important things” in combatting harassment, Fitzgerald said. So, too, is taking action against harassers.

If a large proportion of sexual harassment is being perpetrated by a small number of individuals, harassment could be reduced by just firing them, suggested Mindy Bergman, a professor of psychology at Texas A&M University.

Harassment Risks

Organizations at particular risk for harassment, Cortina said, are characterized by:

  • A skewed gender ratio, such that most employees are male.
  • Job duties and tasks that are historically masculine in nature.
  • Organizational tolerance of offensive behavior.

Chaotic workplaces also enhance the risk of harassment, Fitzgerald said. She noted that many harassment cases arise in the restaurant business. “Everyone runs around in the back and there’s no privacy but in the cooler, where everyone is sexually assaulted,” she remarked.


Sexual harassment remains the most common type of harassment, though reported incidents of it decreased slightly in fiscal year 2014, testified Ron Edwards, director of program research and surveys in the EEOC Office of Research, Information and Planning.

According to EEOC statistics, in the private sector there were:

  • 12,146 sexual harassment charges in 2014, down from 12,695 in 2010.
  • 9,023 race harassment charges in 2014, up from 8,798 in 2010.
  • 4,848 disability harassment charges in 2014, up from 4,119 in 2010.
  • 3,446 national origin harassment charges in 2014, down from 3,643 in 2010.
  • 1,344 religious harassment charges in 2014, down from 1,362 in 2010.
  • 1,056 color harassment charges in 2014, up from 895 in 2010.

Dexter Brooks, director of federal sector programs in the EEOC Office of Federal Operations, said that in the federal government, “The percentage of complaints filed alleging harassment, particularly nonsexual harassment, climbed from 31.31 percent in fiscal year 2004 to 43.62 percent in fiscal year 2013. Although federal employees have filed fewer complaints during that time period, decreasing from 19,024 to 15,226, the number of complaints alleging harassment has grown from 5,957 to 6,641.”

He concluded that, “Based on this rate of increase, harassment allegations will soon comprise half of all complaints filed” by federal employees.

Allen Smith, J.D., is the manager of workplace law content for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMlegaleditor.



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Discover what’s trending in HR

Search and download FREE white papers from industry experts.

Search and download FREE white papers from industry experts.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.