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With allegations of sexual harassment coming from organizations around the nation in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein claims and many others that followed, plus the launch of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC's) online system to file harassment and discrimination complaints, experts advise that it is time for HR to step up harassment prevention training.
And the best way to conduct that training, they say, is in person.
Offering professionally conducted onsite sessions is a far more effective option than asking staff to review a handbook or watch a video, said Bob Kilroy, a partner and chair of Worcester, Mass.-based law firm Mirick O'Connell's Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Group.
Kilroy said that while the EEOC's reporting tool is "a good thing—in terms of efficiency and [making] it easier for complainants to inquire and file charges—from the employers' perspective, it's not necessarily welcome news."
As it becomes easier for employees to contact the EEOC, he said, "HR will need to be more proactive in ensuring [the workplace] environment doesn't incite someone to file a complaint. Employers are advised to up their game in terms of training that's designed to prevent sexual harassment or any type of discriminatory behavior." In some cases, organizations will need to change their culture and environment to be more inclusive and respectful of women and to make reporting complaints of this nature to HR easier.
The EEOC's Public Portal launched Nov. 1. It provides employees nationwide with resources on discrimination complaints, including frequently asked questions and the option to electronically file and sign charges.
"This secure online system makes the EEOC and an individual's charge information available wherever and whenever it is most convenient for that individual," said EEOC Acting Chair Victoria A. Lipnic. "It's a giant leap forward for the EEOC in providing online services."
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Involuntary Termination of Employment in the United States]
Cost of Training
Training employees to prevent harassment is cheaper than fighting complaints, experts said.
"You might be able to bring in [someone to conduct harassment and discrimination prevention training] for a couple of hours for $1,000," Kilroy said. "Comparatively, one complaint filed with a state agency might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on how the case goes. So the training is worth it."
In addition to hundreds of millions of dollars paid out in settlements every year, "sexual harassment causes low employee morale, high job turnover, increased sick leave, decreased productivity and reputational loss," said Mark A. Hanley, a partner and labor and employment attorney with the Tampa, Fla., office of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings. While written sexual harassment policies are a must at every organization, "preventing sexual harassment involves much more from the top down. Prevention starts with an attitude by top-level executives that they will not tolerate any form of harassment," he added.
Leaders must be committed to a zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment or a written policy will have little effect. "Once employees know that top-level executives are committed to the company's policies prohibiting harassment, the company needs to train their managers and employees on that policy," Hanley said. "The EEOC recommends 'an employer should ensure that its supervisors and managers understand their responsibilities under the organization's anti-harassment policy and complaint procedures.' Best practices dictate that such training take place upon hire and at least every year thereafter."
Investigations of sexual harassment complaints should be thorough and immediate, and employers should "take prompt and effective remedial action based on the investigation," Hanley said. And "if an employee does complain, don't retaliate."
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