Curbing workplace sexual harassment is an ongoing priority for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), according to agency leaders.
The EEOC received more sexual-harassment charges in fiscal year 2018 than 2017 and filed more sexual-harassment lawsuits on behalf of aggrieved workers. The agency has put a huge emphasis on anti-harassment efforts and is focusing on both harassment-prevention training and enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, said EEOC Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic at the recent American Bar Association’s 2018 Labor and Employment Law Conference.
“You don’t want to be on the receiving end of an EEOC lawsuit,” she added, noting that the agency has a 95.7 percent success rate for the cases it brings. The EEOC recovered almost $70 million for sexual-harassment claimants in fiscal year 2018—an increase from $47.5 million in fiscal year 2017.
Enforcement alone will never be enough to stop harassment, said EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum, who co-chaired the agency’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. “So even though we are primarily an enforcement agency, we felt it was our responsibility to also play in the game of prevention.”
HR professionals need to make a case to top leaders about why they should spend extra time, money and effort on harassment prevention. Harassment is wrong and can have detrimental effects on the victim, but there are also significant direct and indirect costs to the employer, Feldblum said. Litigation can be expensive, she noted, but there are even higher costs associated with absenteeism, medical expenses, productivity, reputational harm and turnover.
“Most incidents of harassment are not reported,” she said, adding that employees who are harassed or witness harassment often leave the company if they can without bringing the issue to a manager or the HR department.
The EEOC has a road map for employers to guide them through three basic components that need to be addressed to stop harassment:
- Workplace culture. Employees at all levels of the organization must think that harassment is unacceptable. Leaders can shape workplace culture by believing that harassment is wrong, articulating their expectations and acting in a way that workers believe is authentic.
- Accountability. Anyone who is found—after a fair and thorough investigation—to have engaged in harassment must receive discipline that is proportionate to the misconduct. HR, supervisors, union stewards and anyone else who is responsible for taking harassment reports must respond appropriately. Additionally, there must be consequences for anyone who retaliates against an employee who reports harassment or intervenes to stop it.
- Policies, procedures and training. Policies and training should be simple and avoid legalese. Employees need to know what behavior is not acceptable in the workplace, what to do if they experience or observe unacceptable behavior, what the consequences are of engaging in such behavior and that retaliation against employees who report harassment will not be tolerated.
Experts agree that harassment-prevention training is about changing behavior, not about changing minds.
Feldblum echoed this sentiment by acknowledging that trainers aren’t going to redirect people’s belief systems in a two-hour workshop. Instead, she said, the training should help workers understand what conduct is expected in the workplace. “That’s why we call it compliance training.”
Changing workplace culture is a longer process that involves buy-in from executives, who must lead by example, Feldblum noted.
Bystander-intervention training and programs on being respectful in the workplace can go a step further than harassment-prevention measures to shape workplace culture. Rather than simply focusing on compliance, these are skill-based training programs that teach employees and supervisors how to promote and contribute to a positive and respectful work environment, she said.
“The EEOC has accomplished much this past year as a leader, an enforcer of the law, an educator and an expert on harassment prevention,” according to the agency’s website. “But much more remains to be done and we will continue to look for ways to improve the work that we do.”
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