April 10, 2017

Now is the time to review your workplace anti-harassment efforts

sexual assault awareness month

April is National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month (SAAM), an annual campaign to raise awareness about sexual violence and educate communities on how to prevent it. For employers, it’s an opportunity to review anti-harassment policies and procedures, and reinforce a commitment to preventing sexual harassment and maintaining a safe and productive work environment.

Workplace harassment remains a pervasive and persistent issue. In fiscal year 2016, sex harassment allegations in the private sector accounted for almost 30% of all charges filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The EEOC is currently reviewing public comment on its proposed Enforcement Guidance on Unlawful Harassment. The proposed guidance is intended to help employers better understand the agency’s approach to investigating complaints and enforcing workplace discrimination and harassment laws, which protect individuals from harassment based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age or genetic information.  

In previous posts, we discussed the EEOC’s revised enforcement guidance on retaliation and national origin discrimination.

The proposed harassment guidance follows a report and recommendations by the EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, published last June. The report makes a strong business case for organizations to take preventing workplace harassment seriously:

“Last year, EEOC alone recovered $164.5 million for workers alleging harassment – and these direct costs are just the tip of the iceberg. Workplace harassment first and foremost comes at a steep cost to those who suffer it, as they experience mental, physical, and economic harm. Beyond that, workplace harassment affects all workers, and its true cost includes decreased productivity, increased turnover, and reputational harm. All of this is a drag on performance – and the bottom line.”

The task force identified five core principles for preventing and addressing harassment:

  • Committed and engaged leadership
  • Consistent and demonstrated accountability
  • Strong and comprehensive harassment policies
  • Trusted and accessible complaint procedures
  • Regular, interactive training tailored to the audience and the organization

The EEOC suggests that organizations take a holistic approach to preventing unwelcome or offensive conduct, noting that workplace culture exerts the greatest impact on whether organizations actively prevent harassment or allow it to proliferate.

To be effective, a positive workplace culture needs executive leaders, who put a high priority on preventing harassment, along with systems in place that hold employees, at every level, accountable for engaging in (or permitting) harassment.

As in its other guidelines, the EEOC includes “promising practices” to help employers develop and refine their anti-harassment measures. These practices include implementing:

  • A harassment policy that is comprehensive, easy-to-understand, and regularly communicated to all employees
  • A harassment complaint system that is fully resourced, is accessible to employees, has multiple avenues for making a complaint and is regularly communicated to all employees
  • Training that educates all employees − regardless of where they are located − about the organization’s harassment policy and complaint/reporting system
  • Training for supervisors and managers that covers information on how to identify potential risk factors and actions that may minimize or eliminate the risk of harassment

Traliant Insight

As the EEOC finalizes its harassment guidelines, consider some of its “promising practices” as you assess your efforts to reduced the risk of workplace harassment and promote a culture where everyone is treated with respect, civility and fairness. For more information and resources about Sexual Assault Awareness Month, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center at www.nsvrc.org and Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence at www.workplacesrespond.org.