More than half of federal-sector equal employment opportunity (EEO) complaints since 2018 have included an allegation of harassment, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The agency is working to reverse this trend.
The EEOC in April issued a technical assistance document, "Promising Practices for Preventing Harassment in the Federal Sector," that includes steps federal employers can take to avoid, report and address sexual, racial and other forms of harassment.
"The EEOC remains committed to combating workplace harassment on all bases and providing federal agencies with the tools they need to advance anti-harassment efforts," EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows said in a statement. "This document will serve as a valuable resource to help agencies prevent and remedy harassment and will assist in their efforts to update or revise agency policies and programs."
Stephen Paskoff, CEO of training company Employment Learning Innovations in Atlanta and former EEOC litigator, said addressing harassment not only forges a safe workspace but also supports recruitment and retention efforts—which the federal government has struggled with in recent years.
"Making sure everyone is working in a way that others can feel safe and get the best work done … and speak up about ideas for innovation and concerns about issues as they would with other significant issues is critical to business success," he explained.
Leadership and Accountability
The EEOC recommends that federal leaders should:
- Routinely meet with supervisors and officials in charge of anti-harassment programs to discuss the state of the program.
- Periodically evaluate harassment risk factors, such as workplaces with significant power disparities, and take steps to eliminate those factors.
- Conduct climate and exit surveys and review EEO complaint data to understand the prevalence of harassment, retaliation and other unwelcome work-related conduct.
- Ensure that the response to harassment allegations is regularly evaluated and documented through an electronic tracking system.
- Acknowledge and reward employees, supervisors and managers for creating and maintaining a culture in which harassment is not tolerated.
Investigations of harassment allegations should begin within 10 calendar days of the employer being made aware of the incident, the EEOC noted.
"These steps have to be actually implemented in a way that reaches from senior executive leadership through first-level leadership, as it affects all employees," Paskoff added.
Comprehensive and Effective Anti-Harassment Policy
Each federal entity should draft an anti-harassment policy, which could prevent and limit their liability for harassment. The EEOC says that a well-constructed anti-harassment policy should:
- Include an easy-to-understand explanation of prohibited conduct, comprising a clear definition of harassment.
- Detail how the workforce could violate the policy not only in person but also through conduct displayed on virtual platforms, including social media.
- Explain the employer's responsibility to investigate and correct harassment even where the alleged victims wish otherwise.
- Be available onsite and online in accessible formats.
- Be reviewed and updated periodically.
Paskoff said most organizations already have effective policies in place that "say all the right things."
"However, even though they'll also have harassment training and complaint systems in place, they may still have issues arising, as the EEOC has recognized," he said. "It's absolutely critical that you follow certain protocols to get the best performance, teamwork and results."
Effective and Accessible Anti-Harassment Program
The workforce must be able to understand the procedures in an anti-harassment plan. The EEOC states that the program should:
- Allow for anonymous reporting through platforms like hotlines and websites.
- Provide the necessary resources to respond promptly, thoroughly and effectively to complaints.
- Leverage a complaint tracking system to document reports of harassment.
- Consider interim actions to prevent further harassment during investigations and convey the investigation results to the alleged victim and harasser, consistent with relevant legal requirements.
- Use tailored training, letters of warning and counseling to address prohibited conduct before it becomes unlawful or serious enough for more significant discipline.
Creating an accessible, anonymous avenue for reporting harassment is particularly important due to the prevalence of retaliation in workplaces today, Paskoff said.
"People fear speaking up quite often for good reason, and when they do speak up, the idea is to identify a problem so that it can be investigated," he said. "If people speak up before things get out of hand, a lot of problems that get more serious could be resolved earlier."
Effective Anti-Harassment Training
The EEOC says that an effective anti-harassment training program should be:
- Promoted by senior leaders.
- Regularly revised and updated as needed.
- Followed by solicitation of feedback and input from participants to improve its effectiveness.
- Provided by trainers who are experts in the topic of harassment.
- Routinely assessed to measure its effectiveness in reducing harassment and retaliation.
- Conducted in smaller groups that foster more employee engagement and participation.
Paskoff noted that the steps the EEOC laid out to prevent and address harassment are "absolutely critical" to employee safety and business success, adding, "If you want to prevent harassment, find out about it and correct it."