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The biggest finding of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace may be what it failed to find—namely, any evidence that the past 30 years of corporate training has had any effect on preventing workplace harassment. “That was a jaw-dropping moment for us,” said EEOC Commissioner Victoria A. Lipnic in a Sunday Session at the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition.
Lipnic and Chai R. Feldblum, the Select Task Force co-chairs, shared a preview of the research and recommendations that have come out of the group’s work over the past 18 months. They expected to formally present their findings at a public commission meeting June 20 in Washington, D.C. The Select Task Force was convened in January 2015 by EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang and comprises academics, social scientists, plaintiff and defense attorneys, employer and employee advocacy groups, representatives of organized labor, and others.
Despite finding no data that harassment training works, Lipnic and Feldblum advocate that HR professionals build on the foundation of their organization’s existing policies. “We’re not suggesting throwing out the old,” Lipnic said. However, “what we want people to understand is that if you are thinking training alone is a panacea to helping out any type of harassment, [it’s not]. It doesn’t work,” she said.
It’s effective to take a holistic approach that starts with getting the buy-in of senior leaders. “For [training] to matter, employees have to feel their leaders are being authentic,” Feldblum said. “They have to believe that leaders mean what they say” when they claim to want to stop harassment.
One of the key purposes of the task force’s work is to give HR professionals the tools and talking points they need to educate leaders and help shift their organizations toward becoming more-respectful work environments. “We’re trying to change behaviors,” Feldblum said. “The best way to do that is to create a culture where it’s just not cool to sexually harass someone or racially harass someone.”
What Harassment Is
Harassment is generally defined as any unwelcome conduct based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age (40 and over), disability or genetic information. It becomes unlawful when employees are forced to endure offensive behavior in order to keep their jobs or when the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment.
However, the Select Task Force is focused on thwarting all unwanted behavior based on protected characteristics. “We wanted to take a look beyond just what the law is,” Lipnic said. “Harassment doesn’t have to rise to the level of being pervasive and severe,” she said. “[Our goal] is to stop unwelcome conduct before it rises to the level of legal problem.”
All Too Common
The Select Task Force was formed in part due to the EEOC’s belief that harassment is a pervasive problem, and the group’s subsequent research bore that out. Of 90,000 EEOC charges raised against private-sector employers, one-third were related to claims of harassment, either directly or as part of a broader allegation, Lipnic said. Roughly one-half were based on sex.
And those complaints are the tip of the iceberg. “We can’t just use charges and complaints [to the agency],” Lipnic said. “That can be very under-inclusive,” given that 90 percent of people who are harassed never file a legal complaint, according to the academic literature.
Unfortunately, there is a dearth of data to draw on. “Our first really disturbing finding was that, other than surveys about sex-based harassment, we do not have any national surveys assessing harassment based on sexual orientation, race, disability, etc.,” Lipnic said.
Also disturbing is that, according to the information available regarding sexual harassment, anywhere from 25 percent to 80 percent of women have experienced it at some point in their careers, depending on how the term is defined.
What to Do
Lipnic and Feldblum made several recommendations for how HR can help prevent workplace harassment:
Make the business case. In 2015 alone, the EEOC recovered $165 million from harassment charges against employers. Citing this information is a powerful way to counter the perception that allowing bad behavior is the price leaders have to pay to retain certain high-level employees. And that’s to say nothing of the huge toll harassment can take on a company’s reputation and overall retention rate. “Research shows that people don’t like it when harassment happens,” Feldblum said. “They feel powerless to do anything but leave.”
Implement customized training. Don’t ask employees to sit through a boring and impersonal online training session. To be effective, “you need training that is live, in-person and customized to your workplace,” Lipnic said. “You need someone who understands what your workplace is.”
Create a culture of kindness. The Select Task Force recommends two new forms of training intended to cultivate harassment-free workplaces. “What we learned from academics and investigators is that if one does what’s called “workplace civility training”—a very skills-based training on how to be respectful—that can help [employers] avoid harassment on the basis of protected characteristics,” Feldblum said.
Feldblum and Lipnic also suggest something called “bystander intervention training,” in which employees are taught to recognize and report problematic behavior among others when they see it. It is modeled after the “It’s On Us” campaign against sexual violence, in which individuals are asked to sign a pledge indicating they will intervene if they witness a rape or sexual assault in progress.
“Our big, audacious recommendation is that the EEOC should help launch an ‘It’s On Us’ campaign for workplace harassment,” Feldblum said. “Our less-audacious recommendation is to assess how that training would apply in the workplace—to see if we can work with folks and have more employers provide bystander intervention.”
Christina Folz is the editor of HR Magazine.
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