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EEOC report calls for reboot of employer antiharassment efforts

by Leslie Silverman

Over a 15-month period, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Commissioners Victoria Lipnic and Chai Feldblum led a task force focused on understanding and preventing workplace harassment. On June 20, 2016, Commissioners Lipnic and Feldblum released a final report and recommendations based on their experience leading the EEOC task force. 

Task force and report
The EEOC created the “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace” based on its recognition that despite past efforts, harassment continues to be a persistent problem in this country. Nearly one-third of the 90,000 charges filed with the EEOC last year included allegations of harassment. In addition, the task force found that many incidents of harassment continue to go unreported. In releasing the report, Commissioners Lipnic and Feldblum called for a “reboot of workplace harassment and prevention efforts.”

The report contains a three-pronged strategy aimed at preventing harassment. To reduce incidents of workplace harassment, there must be:

  1. Leadership commitment to a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace where harassment is not tolerated;
  2. Development of policies and reporting procedures, investigations, and corrective actions as part of a holistic effort to prevent harassment; and
  3. Effective compliance and prevention training.

Antiharassment training
Of the three prongs, the report focuses most heavily on training, emphasizing that to be effective, the training must focus on preventing harassment as opposed to simply avoiding liability. The report voices a strong preference for live, interactive antiharassment training as opposed to canned training. Rejecting a one-size-fits-all approach, the report recommends that employers tailor their training to the specific realities of the workplace and the needs of their workforce.

The report urges employers to provide the training in the languages spoken by their workers and in a manner that is more likely to be understood by workers with different education levels or styles of learning. The report also emphasizes that effective training must clarify what conduct is and is not acceptable in the workplace and educate workers about their rights and responsibilities if they experience or witness harassment. Above all, the report underscores the importance of training middle managers and first-line supervisors, who are in the best position to address conduct early on before it becomes illegal harassment.

Alternative approaches to prevent harassment
The report also suggests that employers consider new types of training and policies that go further to eliminate the situations that lead to harassment in the first place. As a best practice, the report suggests that employers consider implementing “bystander intervention training” similar to training that has been successful in reducing the incidence of sexual violence on college campuses. In addition, the report recommends that employers consider training aimed at promoting respect and civility in the workplace as opposed to avoiding illegal harassment.

Bottom line
The 88-page report includes an executive summary as well as a number of useful tools, such as employer checklists and a chart of potential risk factors and responses. While the EEOC report does not break new ground, it does serve as an excellent primer for employers looking for ways to reduce risk and minimize incidents of harassment.

Leslie Silverman is an attorney with Fortney & Scott, LLC, in Washington, D.C. You can reach her at lsilverman@fortneyscott.com.