The EEOC recently released a Report of its “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace”.  The purpose of the report was to “move beyond the legal arena and gain insights from the worlds of social science, and practitioners on the ground, on how to prevent harassment in the workplace”.

The Report notes that because the focus of the Task Force was on prevention, its members did not focus only on the legal definition of workplace harassment, but rather “included examination of conduct and behaviors which might not be ‘legally actionable,’ but left unchecked, may set the stage for unlawful harassment.”

Some of the key findings were that workplace harassment remains a persistent problem, it often goes unreported, and that training processes to date have not been effective.

The Task Force provides the following list of recommendations:

  • Employers should foster an organizational culture in which harassment is not tolerated, and in which respect and civility are promoted. Employers should communicate and model a consistent commitment to that goal.
  • Employers should assess their workplaces for the risk factors associated with harassment and explore ideas for minimizing those risks.
  • Employers should conduct climate surveys to assess the extent to which harassment is a problem in their organization.
  • Employers should devote sufficient resources to harassment prevention efforts, both to ensure that such efforts are effective, and to reinforce the credibility of leadership’s commitment to creating a workplace free of harassment.
  • Employers should ensure that where harassment is found to have occurred, discipline is prompt and proportionate to the severity of the infraction. In addition, employers should ensure that where harassment is found to have occurred, discipline is consistent, and does not give (or create the appearance of) undue favor to any particular employee.
  • Employers should hold mid-level managers and front-line supervisors accountable for preventing and/or responding to workplace harassment, including through the use of metrics and performance reviews.
  • If employers have a diversity and inclusion strategy and budget, harassment prevention should be an integral part of that strategy.

In addition, the Task Force noted the importance of communicating to employees what conduct is unacceptable (whether or not they might describe such conduct as harassment), and found that “managers and supervisors need effective tools to respond to observation or reports of harassment.”

It further noted that regardless of “the level of knowledge in a workplace, we know from the research that organizational culture is one of the key drivers of harassment.”

For that reason, it assessed trainings “that might have an impact on shaping organizational cultures in a way that would prevent harassment in a workplace.” In doing so, it noted that two types of trainings stood out “as showing significant promise for preventing harassment in the workplace: (1) workplace civility training; and (2) bystander intervention training.”

The Task Force described the bystander training as training that could “help employees identify unwelcome and offensive behavior that is based on a co-workers’ protected characteristic under employment non-discrimination laws; could create a sense of responsibility on the part of employees to ‘do something’ and not simply stand by; could give employees the skills and confidence to intervene in some manner to stop harassment; and finally, could demonstrate the employer’s commitment to empowering employees to act in this manner. Bystander training also affords employers an opportunity to underscore their commitment to non-retaliation by making clear that any employee who ‘steps up’ to combat harassment will be protected from negative repercussions.”

The Report includes both a short Summary of Recommendations and Checklists.  The checklists, found in Appendix B, are presented as a “checklist for an effective harassment prevention policy” and “an opportunity to take a fresh and critical look at their current processes and consider whether a “reboot” is necessary or valuable.”

Based on the focus of the report and recommendations, it appears that employers should focus on creative approaches to training and confrontation of harassment issues and not simply rely on “canned” training videos that do not present a platform for interaction or discussion of the issues.

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