EEOC Task Force Advocates Focus on Culture and Prevention

Training employees is not enough to eliminate harassment in the workplace

By Dori Meinert Jun 21, 2016
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2016 Annual Conference & Exposition
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HR professionals should review their organization’s anti-harassment policies in light of newly released recommendations from a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) task force, a member of that task force said June 20 during a session at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition.

Employers need to do more than train workers in order to identify and avoid harassment, as defined in narrow legal terms. They also need to create a culture of civility and respect that discourages the type of conduct that leads to harassment, said Patricia A. Wise, an attorney with Niehaus Wise & Kalas Ltd. in Toledo, Ohio.

“If we really want to get rid of harassment in the workplace, we’ve got to focus on the culture and we need to focus on prevention,” Wise said. She was one of two lawyers representing SHRM on the task force, which has been studying the prevalence of workplace harassment since January 2015.

About 30 percent of all EEOC charges involve some allegation of harassment.

Accountability is still key, she said. “When harassment occurs, there needs to be a swift and appropriate response. There has to be a clear message that harassment is not tolerated in the workplace.”

However, Wise advised against adopting a too-broad harassment policy, such as a zero-tolerance policy that mandates an employee’s termination on first offense, because legally the response to harassment must be proportional to the act.

“A one-size-fits-all policy is not appropriate,” she said. 

The task force found that little research has been done on the effectiveness of corporate training programs in reducing the level of harassment in the workplace. While such programs do help employers avoid legal liability, they could be doing more, Wise said.

She said the best anti-harassment training is:

  • Conducted in person, not online.
  • Interactive.
  • Offered frequently throughout the year instead of just as a one-time effort.
  • Tailored to the specific workforce and industry.
  • Endorsed and supported by organizational leaders.
  • Coordinated with other interventions aimed at encouraging a more respectful and diverse workplace.

In addition, training that is poorly conducted can do more harm than good. How a complaint is handled by a supervisor can determine whether someone decides to sue, Wise said. Her advice: Be selective in designating the people who will receive such complaints. Make sure they will respond appropriately.

When someone brings a complaint of harassment, the first words that he or she should hear are: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We take this very seriously,” she said.

The task force recommended that employers implement new types of training including workplace civility and bystander intervention training. Colleges have been having success with bystander intervention training to create a community culture aimed at stopping sexual assault, she said.

The appendix of the task force report includes a chart of risk factors that indicate harassment is more likely to occur, as well as checklists that can help HR professionals update their organization’s policies on harassment, reporting systems and investigations.

An anti-harassment policy should include:

  • A prohibition of all forms of harassment, including harassment of someone of the same sex and harassment of someone because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
  • A specific prohibition of sexual harassment, providing examples of what constitutes this kind of harassment.
  • A specific prohibition of harassment based on race or skin color, providing examples of inappropriate language and images that may be construed as being derogatory or offensive.  
  • The procedure for making complaints related to harassment and retaliation, including where to make a complaint.

All allegations of harassment should be investigated thoroughly, Wise cautioned. In a 2011 ruling in Staub vs. Proctor Hospital, the U.S. Supreme Court found that employers can be held liable for the discriminatory actions of an employee who influenced, but didn’t make, the decision to terminate another worker. In that case, the terminated worker’s boss gave false information to her supervisor and the vice president of HR, who relied on that information to fire the worker.​

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.

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