EEOC: Talk and Listen to Employees to Stop Harassment at Work

Experts call for transparent investigations, workplace culture change

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek November 5, 2018
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​Organizations must take a holistic approach to change their workplace culture, according to Chai R. Feldblum. She is a commissioner with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and co-chair of the agency's Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. Employers can prevent harassment, she said, by holding people accountable for their behavior and having the right policies, procedures and training in place.

"No one element, alone, will suffice," she said during an EEOC public hearing Wednesday on revamping workplace culture to prevent all types of harassment. Efforts "must start at the top with strong and committed leadership."

She urged employers to be transparent about the outcome of investigations when employees come forward with a harassment complaint. HR professionals typically are trained to not tell the employee what steps the organization is taking to address the problem.

"I don't think it's very helpful for someone who has gotten the courage to come forward to be told at the end, 'We did an investigation, and we've dealt with it appropriately,' " Feldblum said.

"We need to challenge that assumption" that employees shouldn't know how colleagues are disciplined. "I know it's hard to convey our corrective action, but let's put our heads together and think about how we can make that work." 

It's important, too, that disciplinary action is proportionate to the offense. 

"Zero tolerance" does not automatically mean the perpetrator is fired, cautioned Alejandra Valles. She is chief of staff and secretary-treasurer for Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West, a union based in Los Angeles whose members include janitorial workers.

Valles was among a panel of experts at the hearing

"There is a difference between criminal activity and being harassed in the workplace. Zero tolerance ... means there is a process and [the issue] will not be swept underneath the rug. It will be dealt with and addressed," she said. 

Women make up more than 80 percent of janitors in California. They are especially vulnerable to sexual violence at work because many do not speak Englishmaking it difficult to speak up for themselvesand work at night in isolation, Valles said.


Not all perpetrators of harassment are powerful people, such as Harvey Weinstein and the other well-known media figures accused during the past year of sexual misconduct or assault, she noted.

"They are co-workers that are doing this to each other."

Involve Employees in the Solution 

Sexual harassment was not a priority for SEIU-USWW until leaders saw the documentary "Rape on the Night Shift." After the union added a question to the survey it sends to members ahead of contract negotiations, they discovered that about half of its 5,000 members had been sexually harassed or assaulted at work.

Night-shift janitors worked with the union to design and act in a training video for colleagues. The idea was to change the culture of the industry from the bottom up by altering behavior "so it doesn't move from harassment to assault to rape," Valles said.

"From the union perspective, this is a perfect moment to give workers a voice," she said.

The video depicts workers who have been victimized and situations they routinely confront at work, as well as stories about the impact of the offender's actions on the person who was harassed. Female janitors conduct in-person interactive training for workers and use survivor-centered solutions that include instruction on how to respond the moment harassment occurs.

"We also act out the right way to intervene, including going to HR and filing a report or going through other channels to report what is happening," Valles said.

More than 100 janitors have been trained, and the union is partnering with employers and state agencies to implement a statewide program. The union wants contractual language that calls for annual, in-person peer-to-peer training within the first 60 days of employment.

Other tactics discussed at the hearing include:

Assessments and investigations. Employers can assess their organization's culture to identify high-risk teams and behavior trends, such as off-the-clock conduct and alcohol use, said David G. Bowman, a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in Boston. The data can reveal areas of organizational vulnerability, such as fear of retaliation.

"It is important that organizations create a healthy top-down culture, where managers and leaders actively support the prospect of creating a healthier work environment," he said.

The former HR professional is a labor and employment litigator and director of Morgan Lewis Resources Workplace Training and Consulting. The firm conducts cultural assessments.

He cautioned that assessments are not a substitute for an investigation but can be used in responding to an incident or allegation.

When employers investigate a harassment complaint, he advised, they should consider whether the harassment constitutes a violation of policy. Once that decision is made, it opens the doors to a variety of ways to deal with the problem.

Some behavior is "fairly egregious but not to the level of termination," he said. "Sit with [the employee] and educate them about what they did and why the behavior was problematic. What was the effect on the individual? What are the excuses in your mind that allowed you to engage in this behavior? … It's the minority that result in terminations."

[SHRM members-only resources and tools: Workplace Harassment]

Strong board oversight. The composition of a board of directors and a board's effective oversight of its CEO are among critical factors in determining the board's role in preventing workplace harassment, noted Anne Wallestad. She is president and CEO of BoardSource in Washington, D.C.

"Boards can't passively address allegations as they arise," she told commissioners. They need "to proactively examine how their organization's own culture may be contributing to an environment where harassment and abuse go unchecked."

Boards often have a false sense of security when they focus only on positive financial metrics and haven't received any harassment complaints. However, they must be vigilant, according to Wallestad.

One of the best tools for boards, she said, is an annual 360-degree CEO assessment that includes feedback from the CEO's direct reports. The board also should look at staff surveys, staff retention metrics and publicly available commentary, she said.

CEOs also can be blind to problems, Bowman observed.

"The key thing," he said, "is to make sure your ethics, your compliance, HR and legal teams are permeating at all levels down the organization so the issues are being resolved as they come up."

Online training. Web-based training can complement live training and fit into an overall harassment-prevention program, noted Rob Buelow, vice president of Everfi, a Washington, D.C.-based provider of online education.

The advantage, he said, is that it can cover sensitive topics that some employees may feel uncomfortable broaching during an in-person group setting. Online training also can be used for "learning bursts" of five-minute tutorials.

Pre- and post-training surveys can help monitor changes in employee attitude and behavior to help identify weak areas that may require additional instruction, Buelow said. He suggested broadening the training message from legal compliance to a focus on the organization's values and culture and one that encourages employees to act in ways that align with those values.

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