Over the past weeks, allegations of sexual harassment have been in the headlines. Many of these stories involve prominent members of the business and entertainment industry and allege a pattern of inappropriate and illegal behavior with countless victims. In many of these cases, victims reported a fear of retaliation and loss of employment (and in some cases, careers) if they reported the incidents. These victims have demanded that more be done to stop this behavior in the workplace. They also want victims to have adequate recourse to seek protection.
The hashtag #MeToo as a social media call to action for individuals to communicate that they have been victims of sexual harassment or assault resulted in over 12 million participants. This should be cause for significant concern in the workplace as it may reveal that there are significant numbers of cases which go unreported every year.
Illegal harassment is broader than just sexual harassment and includes discrimination on the basis of:
- National origin
Discrimination on the basis of the demand for equal pay is also covered, as is discrimination based on any genetic information.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for fiscal year 2016 reported responses to over 585,000 calls and 160,000 inquiries in field offices; 97,443 charges were resolved and the EEOC secured more than $482 million in settlements for victims. These figures do not include settlements resulting from litigation. Equally costly is the negative press when cases are publicized.
Creating a harassment and discrimination-free workplace
In 2016, the EEOC issued guidance on identifying ways to prevent harassment and further explained legal standards for unlawful harassment and employer liability. Enhanced anti-harassment training is described in this latest enforcement guidance.
Leadership, accountability and strong anti-harassment policies and reporting systems are essential components of a successful harassment prevention strategy, but only if employees are aware of them. Regular, interactive, comprehensive training of all employees will ensure that the workforce understands organizational rules, policies, reporting procedures and expectations, as well as the consequences of misconduct.
Anti-harassment training should be:
- Championed by senior leaders
- Conducted by qualified, live, interactive trainers, or, if live training is not feasible, designed to include active engagement by participants
- Repeated and reinforced regularly
- Tailored to the specific workplace and workforce
- Provided to employees at every level and location of the organization
- Provided in all languages commonly used by employees
- Routinely evaluated by participants and revised as necessary
Anti-harassment training is most effective when it is tailored to the organization and audience. Accordingly, when developing training, the daily experiences and unique characteristics of the work, workforce and workplace are important considerations.
Effective anti-harassment training for all employees includes:
- Descriptions of unlawful harassment and conduct that, if left unchecked, might rise to the level of unlawful harassment
- Examples that are tailored to the specific workplace and workforce
- Information about employees' rights and responsibilities if they experience, observe, or otherwise become aware of conduct that they believe may be prohibited
- Explanations of the reporting process
- Explanations of the range of possible consequences for engaging in prohibited conduct
Because supervisors and managers have additional responsibilities with respect to maintaining a harassment-free workplace, they may benefit from additional training.
Effective anti-harassment training for supervisors and managers includes:
- Information about how to prevent, identify, stop, report and correct harassment
- A clear and unmistakable statement that retaliation is prohibited and will not be tolerated
Employers also may find it helpful to consider and implement new forms of training, such as workplace civility training and/or bystander intervention training, to prevent workplace harassment.
Failing to establish a policy, communicate and train employees on the policy, and hold all employees to modeling the policy every day could lead to not only the risk of enforcement and litigation, but media (including social media) coverage that could cost a company its reputation and leaders their careers.