EEOC Asks Industry Leaders How to Help Employers End Harassment

 

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) wants to end workplace harassment and is turning to business leaders for their insight.

"The government is only one part of this," said EEOC acting Chair Victoria Lipnic. Industry associations can also make a difference in what happens in the business community. "When you get cultural change on civil rights, it happens because industry leaders do the right thing," said EEOC Commissioner Charlotte Burrows.

James L. Banks Jr., general counsel for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), joined a dozen industry leaders in a roundtable discussion at the EEOC headquarters March 20 to share what associations are doing and identify ways that the EEOC can help employers curb workplace harassment.

Banks noted that SHRM provides programming on how to prevent and address harassment and covers topics such as workplace civility, diversity and inclusion, complaint investigations and anti-harassment strategies. "We also have a dedicated website with tools and sample policies," Banks said.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, organizational leaders are assessing their workplaces to ensure they have a healthy culture. "SHRM has made a commitment to keep the conversation and education on this topic going with our members and the public in general," Banks said.

Industry Perspective

Roundtable participants represented a variety of industries, including retail, staffing, hospitality, legal, colleges and universities, and wine and spirits. Each discussed their commitment to training members and providing resources to eliminate harassment.

"The EEOC gathered these leaders to better understand the needs of the workers and employers in their industries, and the wide range of solutions to prevent workplace harassment," Lipnic said.

Bob Carlson, president of the American Bar Association (ABA), said that the ABA has a long history of speaking out against sexual harassment and discrimination. However, while women have progressed in the legal profession, sexual harassment persists.

"It is not enough simply to be aware of the problem," he noted. Employers need to know about and implement effective policies and practices that can help eliminate harassment. The ABA is in a unique position to contribute meaningful solutions, he said, because lawyers provide advice to employers and employees on these issues, and they understand the impact of harassment on the workplace.

Rosanna Marietta, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Foundation, said her organization is asking hotels to adopt its 5-Star Promise, which is a pledge to provide employees with safety devices and to adopt policies, training programs and resources to improve safety and prevent and respond to sexual harassment and assault. "Safety is a never-ending challenge and one that our industry is committed to working on every day," she said.

The American Staffing Association (ASA) is a national trade association, and its members recruit, screen and hire workers and place them on temporary assignments. Temporary staffing is among the largest service industries in the U.S., employing nearly 17 million workers annually, said Stephen Dwyer, the association's general counsel. Staffing firms play a vital role in filling jobs, providing training and creating a bridge for workers to secure permanent employment, he noted. "The ASA has endeavored to educate its members about the nature, causes, consequences and prevention of harassment in all of its forms, particularly with respect to temporary and contract workers," he said.

Emphasis on Culture

Although rules and compliance training are important, they are not enough, Banks said, noting that the emphasis should be on changing workplace culture. Furthermore, there are behaviors that may not meet the legal definition of sexual harassment, but they may still cause problems and need to be eliminated from the workplace, he said.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]

Employers should tailor training to address the needs of the specific workplace, according to Stephanie Martz, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Retail Federation. She noted that retail employers are providing more than one method for employees to report harassment, such as calling a supervisor, HR and a toll-free number that connects to headquarters. Employees shouldn't be afraid that they will get themselves or someone else in trouble if they raise concerns, she said.

Workplace-harassment prevention has to be about more than just checking compliance training off the list, said Andy Brantley, president and chief executive officer of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. "You can't train this away." Employers need to hire more women in senior leadership roles and help managers learn how to assess areas for improvement in their work groups, he said.

Agency Takeaways

Lipnic and Burrows said they were encouraged by the conversation and received some good insight from the roundtable on where the EEOC's help is needed.

Industry leaders are concerned about the potential impact of harassment claims on their brand and reputation. "That has been such a coalescing part of this whole movement," Lipnic said in an interview. "They're not randomly hearing from a couple of member companies," she said. Their members and boards are clearly focused on this issue and want to take an active role in preventing harassment.

Burrows noted that industry-specific solutions are important, but there were some key issues discussed that seemed to overlap. Industry leaders said they want to ensure that workers feel comfortable coming forward and don't fear retaliation, and that managers understand the consequences of taking adverse action against employees who complain.

The EEOC has been focused on harassment prevention for the last several years, particularly through its select task force on the study of harassment in the workplace.

"I do think we are moving the needle," Burrows said. "We are indeed in a moment of cultural change, and we all have a role to play in that." 

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