On June 20, 2016, the EEOC published the Report of its “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.” (Check out an executive summary of the Report here.) That Task Force, formed in January 2015, also impaneled a group of outside experts to examine the causes, effects, and prevention of workplace harassment.
While the group could have focused on additional ways for the EEOC to identify, investigate, and penalize incidents of harassment, it instead resulted in a report – written by its co-chairs, Chai R. Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic – that provides much more than that. The report, which is nearly 90 pages long with attachments, includes the usual section headings like: “Workplace Harassment Remains a Persistent Problem” and “”Leadership and Accountability are Critical.” But it goes beyond those standard phrases and ideas, and includes doses of social science, behavioral psychology, and common sense.
Besides pages of statistics (including these: 1/3 of the charges filed with the EEOC in 2015 alleged “harassment” rather than discrimination; 45% of those alleged sex harassment; 35% of LGB-identified employees report having been harassed in the workplace), the report includes one striking fact: that the least common response of either men or women to harassment is to take formal action.
The report lists the actions employees typically take rather than make a formal complaint of harassment (such as denying/downplaying the gravity of the situation; attempting to “avoid” the harasser; reporting to families or trusted others), and points out that according to workplace studies, only about 30% of employees who experience harassment or sexually coercive behavior speak with a supervisor, manager, or union representative about it. If that fact is accurate, the potential adverse effect on productivity and morale should be enough to grab every employer’s attention and concern.
What should employers do to create a more efficient, productive, and healthy workplace? The Task Force’s list of things-to-do includes many points about which employers already are aware, instructing that employers should:
- Adopt and maintain a comprehensive anti-harassment policy;
- Ensure that the policy is communicated frequently to employees;
- Offer reporting procedures that include multiple points of contact, and multiple methods for reporting harassment;
- Be alert for signs of retaliation; and
- Impose prompt and proportionate discipline where harassment is found to have occurred.
However, it also includes a few suggestions not typically in the mix, by suggesting that:
- An employer should periodically “test” its reporting system to determine how well that system works;
- Training should increase trainees’ knowledge about what specific conduct the employer considers unacceptable in the workplace;
- Employers should dedicate sufficient resources to train middle management and first-line supervisors on how to respond effectively to harassment they observe, that is reported to them, or of which they otherwise have information; and
- “Bystander intervention training” should be included as a harassment prevention strategy.
The report should not – as has been recently reported – be viewed as a statement that harassment training is ineffective in all forms, or that employers should abandon efforts to train its managers or employees. Instead, the report can be used as both a roadmap and a report card for assessing employers’ training efforts and the effects of existing anti-harassment training.
If a 90-page report seems intimidating, simply look at the 5-page “Summary of Recommendations,” which includes not only suggestions for employers, but commitments from the EEOC on its plan to make information and statistics available to assist employers in developing credible training programs. Or just read through the 4 pages of Checklists, which provide a free and advance look at how the EEOC will assess harassment prevention programs, written policies, and investigation techniques going forward.
Governmental agencies produce a lot of written materials and guidance, and opinions differ on the effectiveness of much of it. However, the Task Force’s report, which urges a more holistic approach to harassment prevention, just might move the ball closer to the goal of making real change toward a safer, more civil, and genuinely productive workplace.