How the EEOC is Revamping Workplace Culture to Prevent Harassment

As the United States continues to grapple with how to best respond to the spate of complaints and press about workplace harassment, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) further explores new avenues to addressing this concern. In 2016, the EEOC published its “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace,” a report which looked into other resolution approaches, including focus on and training related to workplace civility and bystander intervention. Businesses are carefully monitoring the EEOC’s efforts and progress on this issue as it presents among the most forward-thinking regulatory programs to prevent and stop illegal conduct through voluntary measures that also present an economic benefit to organizations.

This week, the EEOC expanded on these efforts. Some 200 attendees were present at Wednesday’s EEOC morning-long Public Meeting on “Revamping Workplace Culture to Prevent Harassment”, to hear testimonies from seven panelists with expertise in unions, research, legal practice, boards of directors and institutional education.

The meeting’s discussion explored the following topics:

Harassment claims continue to rise in the wake of the #MeToo movement. EEOC commissioners reported a significant rise in harassment complaints this year over 2017. And not only sexual harassment—reports of other forms of harassment based on protected categories continue to rise.

Narratives collected that tell of individuals’ stories harassment are compelling. Stories of sexual harassment and abuse, and other forms of harassment, provide strong testimony regarding the perils of this problem. EEOC has begun using some of these stories to help businesses appreciate the gravity of the problem, not just in terms of numbers but also regarding lives harmed. One principal concern is that reporting harassment is such a challenge for many employees that this effort needs to be balanced with related rewards: trust in the organization’s processes for handling complaints, knowledge of the report’s outcome, greater recognition the the reporter did the ‘right thing’, etc.

Harassment hurts business. Some discussion echoed prior EEOC research and guidance that businesses suffer from harassing conduct: low morale, lost productivity, departing employees, among other problems.

A holistic effort is needed within institutions to solve the problem; one solution will not work. The solution must be a combination of leadership and culture, policies and procedures, training, leadership and employee accountability.

Culture and leadership are priority. Without leadership guiding the way to a change in corporate culture that will not tolerate any form of harassing conduct, all the policies, procedures and training will not produce the needed effect. The commissioners and panelists often returned to the importance of these issues in making continuing and sustained progress in eliminating workplace harassment.

Training quality is more important than the type of training. The meeting raised the ongoing discussion of online versus live training, with examples of where each worked well. The deeper discussion involved what elements of training provided the best results:

  • Legalistic training that focused on the definition of harassment appeared to be shortsighted.
  • Contextual and behavioral training is viewed as more effective, which such topics as involved why harassment occurs (abuse of power), how it affects victims, what steps that victims and bystanders can take, barriers to overcome to encourage employees to raise concerns. Also, the meeting elicited the importance of conversations about proper and improper conduct as part of an effective solution.

Accountability is key. If leadership is not held accountable for influencing a harassment-free workplace and harassers are not disciplined for their conduct, then the commissioners and panelists expect little progress to be made.

Bystander awareness and intervention may significantly lessen the problem. The more that individuals in a workplace are willing and able to call out negative behaviors as they occur, the less that harassers will feel they can get away with their conduct or that it’s implicitly condoned. This was identified as a key component in a shift within an organizational culture.

Workplace civility may be a critical tool. Panelists indicated that shifting the focus from negative conduct to positive, affirmative behaviors has a number of benefits:

  • It changes the point of view toward more acceptable workplace practices, which employees are more comfortable addressing, than negative behaviors, which employees may have a harder time dealing with.
  • It helps to call out minor, undesirable conduct before that conduct rises to a level considered as harassment, much less illegal harassment.
  • It focuses the employees’ conduct on an organization’s policy rather than the law, which often articulates a lower level of questionable conduct as improper.

Syntrio continues to monitor the EEOC’s progress and harassment issues in the public sphere as we strive to develop training that enables individuals and organizations to promote respectful workplaces that value all individuals and that prevents or quickly and effectively deals with harassment of any kind.

Jason has worked in ethics and compliance for over twenty-five years, consulting with Fortune 500™ companies across the business ethics and compliance spectrum, including assessing and strengthening corporate values initiatives, instituting leadership engagement efforts, developing and revising codes of conduct and policies, designing and implementing related procedures, developing monitoring systems, conducting risk, culture and program assessments.

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