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Anti-Harassment Training: Are Your Employees Getting the Message?

As Published in the January, 2017 Issue of the PELRAS Newsletter

Published on: Fri 3rd Feb, 2017 By: Julie Aquino

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, decades of employer-required sexual harassment training has done little to decrease the volume of administrative charges filed each year alleging workplace sexual harassment. In a publication released in June 2016 titled SELECT TASK FORCE ON THE STUDY OF HARASSMENT IN THE WORKPLACE (EEOC June 2016), the EEOC noted that one-third of the 90,000 charges it received in 2015 included a harassment allegation. As the federal entity responsible for investigating and remediating workplace harassment, the EEOC rightfully became concerned and commissioned a task force to investigate the effectiveness of antidiscrimination training.

The Task Force identified several ways in which employers should improve their compliance training. The Task Force recommended that regular, live training that is specifically tailored to the individual workforce be used. Holding live training allows the trainer and employees to address specific scenarios and/or questions that may arise in the particular workforce. The Task Force recommended that interactive training be used to engage employees.

The Task Force observed that employer-required anti-harassment training is generally geared toward telling employees what conduct is prohibited. Training that promotes respect and civility in the workplace is encouraged by the Task Force. See TASK FORCE REPORT, supra. Civility training is designed to change ideas about the expectations of behavior in the workplace and eliminate the breeding grounds of harassment and/or discrimination. It is important that employees understand that conduct that shuns, isolates, demeans, humiliates, or embarrasses an employee based on any protected status may create a hostile work environment. In other words, the conduct need not involve “sex” to be unlawful. For example, a male employee who excludes females from information needed to perform a job could be engaging in illegal behavior even if the male employee has not made any sexually suggestive comments.

Training should be modernized to include topics like e-mail and social media. Do your employees understand that conduct engaged in with friends and family is not necessarily appropriate in the workplace, and that actions (even if they occur via e-mail or in social media forums) that embarrass or humiliate a person based on gender must be avoided? Do they understand that conduct in the workplace should be kept neutral, and therefore joke emails should not be sent or forwarded?

Training should eliminate misconceptions about what conduct rises to the level of harassment or a “hostile work environment.” A “hostile work environment” is a legal term that is used to describe a work environment that is inundated with offensive conduct or material based on one or more protected category—gender, race, religion, national origin, age or disability. It is not harassment for a supervisor to tell an employee that he or she is not meeting performance standards, such as arriving at work on time or timely performing job tasks. See TASK FORCE REPORT, supra.

The Task Force also recommends that employees receive training in bystander intervention. Effective training encourages bystanders to report the harassing/discrimination conduct as a means of eradicating it from the workplace. When a potential workplace problem is identified early on, a situation can be corrected rather than fester.

The importance of supervisor training should not be overlooked. Employers must train supervisors about their role in preventing harassment—supervisors are responsible for monitoring the conduct of those they supervise and leading by example. Supervisors must be trained on their obligation to prevent and report harassment, and they must know that they will be held accountable for performing these responsibilities. Do your supervisors currently understand their role and responsibilities with respect to preventing and reporting harassment? If they do not, your training has not been effective.

Compliance training is grounded upon a legally compliant anti-discrimination and harassment policy. To be legally compliant, your policy should include: (1) a clear explanation of prohibited conduct, including examples; (2) an easy to follow complaint procedure, including multiple reporting avenues; (3) assurance that complaints will be investigated promptly, thoroughly and impartially; (4) a statement prohibiting retaliation and, (5) assurance that proportionate corrective action will be taken when the policy has been violated. Modern harassment policies should also address conduct that occurs via e-mail and social media.