Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) statistics showed that sexual harassment claims filed with the agency increased 13.6 percent for FY 2018 over the previous year. Reasonable cause findings jumped 23.6 percent, and almost $70 million was collected through administrative enforcement—a huge leap from the $47.5 million collected the year before.
The numbers are stark but demonstrate a reason why the EEOC is taking a strong stand on addressing and emphasizing harassment issues and encouraging organizations to be proactive in transforming workplace culture, increasing civility, and reimagining compliance training. The agency’s training advice has evolved over time, culminating with a panel discussion on sexual harassment last fall. The thought leadership from that public meeting and the EEOC’s continual guidance form a blueprint organizations can follow to optimize their compliance training, create a safer culture, and minimize risk.
The EEOC Talks … and Companies Listen
Although the EEOC doesn’t pass laws or regulations, its responsibility to enforce federal laws prohibiting discrimination against job applicants or employees based on protected characteristics commands attention. The agency’s power to investigate and sue organizations—which can lead to huge penalties and costs for offending companies—is respected and even a little feared by compliance professionals.
In other words, when the EEOC speaks, people listen—and when it spoke a couple of years ago, organizations really took notice. Its guidance released that year shifted the sexual harassment conversation from enforcement to prevention. At the core of this new approach were the “Promising Practices”—five core principles to prevent and address the harassment problem:
- Committed and engaged leadership
- Consistent and demonstrated accountability
- Strong and comprehensive harassment policies
- Trusted and accessible compliance procedures
- Regular, interactive training tailored to the audience and the organization
This updated guidance gives organizations a blueprint maintaining a safe, tolerant, and compliant workplace culture.
Crossing the Culture Chasm
The aforementioned EEOC meeting was notable not only because it brought together respected opinions from the public and private sectors, but also because it reinforced the evolving guidance and commitment to preventing sexual harassment. One major takeaway was the need to create safe and respectful workplace cultures that not only can reduce sexual harassment, but also empower employees to report incidents, feel supported, and not fear retaliation.
Chai R. Feldblum, the co-chair of the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, said (as reported by the EEOC), "Today's testimony underscores that to really tackle the problem of workplace harassment, we need to change workplace culture, hold people accountable, and have the right policies, procedures, and training. No one element, alone, will suffice. Instead, it takes a holistic effort that must start at the top with strong and committed leadership."
Organizations that want to effect real change can’t make piecemeal measures; the transformation must involve a comprehensive strategy and buy-in from all stakeholders.
Civility to Counter Harassment
Harassment often is rooted in general workplace incivility, which might be fundamentally ingrained in some organizations. This was the focus of another major discussion at the conference. Christine Porath, a business professor at Georgetown, said (as reported by the EEOC), “Incivility is associated with harassment as it creates a culture of disrespect in which harassment behaviors are tolerated.”
Porath touted the benefits of workplace civility training to counter this problem. Such training engages all employees by encouraging more positive gestures of respect, dignity, and kindness. Moreover, she said that when leaders are civil, performance increases and employees feel safer and happier—which naturally will transform the workplace culture.
Beyond the Law, to Behavior
The EEOC’s strategy for sexual harassment guidance over the past few years points to ensuring companies and their employees know more than just the “rules.” The newer emphasis looks at behavior and doing what’s right and ethical not just because it’s the law, but because it’s right and ethical.
Compliance training can be the bridge between established guidelines and moral responsibility. The EEOC’s evolving guidance states that “compliance training should focus on the unacceptable behaviors themselves, rather than trying to teach participants the specific legal standards that will make such conduct ‘illegal.’ ” Great training combined with a commitment to a more civil, more inclusive workplace culture speaks to the prevention the EEOC is now promoting—and with anything the EEOC says, listening and taking heed is always wise.