Task Force Calls On Employers to "Reboot" Harassment Prevention

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Two Commissioners of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Co-Chairs of a Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, called on stakeholders to double down and "reboot" workplace harassment prevention efforts. 

At a June meeting of the EEOC in Washington, Commissioners Chai R. Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic highlighted for their fellow Commissioners the key findings and recommendations of a report they developed after 14 months of study of workplace harassment with the Select Task Force.

Too much of the effort and training to prevent workplace harassment over the last 30 years has been ineffective and focused on simply avoiding legal liability, explained Lipnic. "In simplest terms, training must change."

"That does not mean we are suggesting that training be thrown out; far from it - but training needs to be part of a holistic, committed effort to combat harassment, focused on the specific culture and needs of a particular workplace," she added.

Merely having effective reporting and response systems in place is also not enough, she cautioned, if employees fail to use them for fear of subsequent retaliation. "Above all, employees must have faith in the system," she noted.

The report recommends that employers explore new types of training to prevent harassment, including workplace civility and bystander intervention training.

"Bystander intervention training can create a sense of collective responsibility on the part of workers and empower them to be engaged bystanders in preventing harassment," she explained. "With leadership support, bystander intervention training could be a game changer in the workplace."

According to John Sarno, president of the Employers Association of New Jersey, the EEOC is moving beyond training and moving toward organizational change.

Sarno has conducted diversity training at hundreds of companies over the last decade.  And although Sarno is a lawyer, he also believes that diversity training is often mischaracterized by most employers as a legal issue.

"If they are doing it for legal protection, most employers really don't care" whether the training works, he says.

It was hardly surprising that training could have counterproductive effects, he added, when the attitude often is, "Just do it, and just do it as cheaply as possible.”  This approach “leaves employees feeling cynical and distrustful of the company and in the worse case sows the seeds for conflict,” he says.

Sarno has written and lectured extensively about this mismatch but believes that lawyers and HR managers “mostly want to check the box. Empowering bystanders is the last thing on their mind,” he says.

The report includes detailed recommendations for harassment prevention, including a chart of risk factors that may permit harassment to occur; effective policies and procedures to reduce and eliminate harassment; recommendations for future research and funding; and targeted outreach. In addition, it offers a toolkit of compliance assistance measures for employers and other stakeholders.

The Report of the Co-Chairs of the Select Task Force on Harassment in the Workplace, witness statements, and an executive summary of the report, can be found on the EEOC’s website here.