Reboot Your Workplace Harassment Prevention Tactics

Make a point of revisiting your company’s antiharassment policy as 2017 begins. The reason: Now that a special, national task force on the subject concluded in 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is advising employers to redouble their prevention efforts—with a new twist on training strategy.

The agency’s recommendations come as it finished reviewing years of the myriad and complex issues associated with harassment in the workplace. The main message of the 18-month-long study: Despite more than 30 years of antiharassment training, policies, and procedures, workplace harassment remains a persistent problem.

Some proof: One-third of the charges the EEOC received allege harassment, amounting to 163,000 charges over the past 5 years. Nearly one-third of the approximately 90,000 charges received in fiscal year 2015 alone included an allegation of workplace harassment. This includes, among other things, charges of unlawful harassment on the basis of sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy), race, disability, age, ethnicity/national origin, color, and religion.

Despite the plethora of claims, most harassment doesn’t get reported, the task force study showed. In fact, its data indicates that at least 85 percent of harassment cases never result in a claim being filed. Moreover, 70 percent don’t result in internal action. The takeaway: The overwhelming majority of situations remain unknown to the employer.

Why is that? The report found that roughly three out of four people who experienced harassment never spoke up to talk to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct. Due to fear of retaliation or other reasons, the tendency is for employees not to take action—other than avoidance, tolerance, or complaining only to family and friends.

Harassment’s Economic ‘Iceberg’

There is, of course, a compelling business case for putting a stop to workplace harassment. For one thing, there’s the direct economic cost. Consider this: Over the past 5 years, the EEOC has collected more than $700 million for complainants in just the prelitigation stage. Last year, the agency collected $140 million in prelitigation and $40 million in litigation.

“These direct costs are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Chai R. Feldblum, an EEOC commissioner and cochair of the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.

On the flip side, there are also the indirect financial costs, which can be even higher— such as negative impacts on retention, productivity, morale, and reputation. So the true cost ends up being a drag on performance—and the company’s bottom line.

Recheck the Climate

So, what prevention steps should you augment?

Not surprisingly, it all starts at the top, the EEOC says. Company leaders have to demonstrate, in both their communications and personal actions, that a healthy, harassment-free workplace is a core value for the organization.

For such an important policy to take hold, employees must believe their leaders are authentic in that commitment—which also requires that company leaders hold employees accountable to that goal.

“The importance of leadership cannot be overstated,” Feldblum says.

In enforcement, for example, instead of “zero-tolerance,” in which all conduct gets the same remedy, focus on swift, effective and proportionate remedial action. Be consistent – don’t look the other way when it’s the “Superstar Harasser.” Then, hold supervisors and managers accountable for how they respond to complaints or observations of harassment.

In addition, the agency’s report recommends another tactic to help convey a sense of commitment to an antiharassment environment: Do a climate survey. In an anonymous, confidential, and secure way, ask employees if they’ve experienced conduct that’s made them uncomfortable. Regularly taking the pulse of your workplace is a smart move, given that workplace culture has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish—or not, the EEOC advises.

Specifically, don’t ask, “Have you been harassed?” Instead, ask if they’ve experienced unwelcome conduct—such as off-color jokes, racial stereotypes, or religious put-downs. Also, ask questions regarding how comfortable they feel reporting problems to management or to Human Resources.

The upshot? The climate surveys can be repeated to ensure compliance and accountability. And they’ll assess the extent to which underlying feelings of harassment are a problem in your organization.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, we’ll discuss three new models of workplace harassment prevention training.