Agency offers guidance in dealing with harassment

Carlene Goldthwaite
Carlene Goldthwaite

Earlier this year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission introduced proposed enforcement guidance on unlawful harassment. An enforcement guidance document details agency policy and explains how laws and regulations apply to specific workplace situations.

While there’s no public timeline for the guidance to be further reviewed and adopted, the document provides helpful information and practical steps employers can take to better manage the risk of workplace harassment.

In its current form, unlawful harassment guidance offers detailed information about the criteria and circumstances the agency considers when investigating a harassment complaint. Throughout the document, real workplace examples are used, allowing an employer to better understand the nuances of this complex subject. The final section of the guidance — titled promising practices — highlights a variety of creative and innovative approaches to prevent and correct harassment.

Based on the earlier work of a select task force on the study of harassment in the workplace, the guidance identifies core principles that have generally proved effective in preventing and addressing harassment: committed and engaged leadership, consistent and demonstrated accountability, strong and comprehensive harassment policies and regular interactive training tailored to the audience and organization.

In the past, employers have focused on the development of effective anti-harassment policies and reporting processes. The new guidance suggests these remain critical building blocks, but policies and processes aren’t helping organizations achieve the larger goal of harassment-free workplaces.

Organizations have long offered harassment prevention training that’s generally too shallow, too short and too infrequent to make a difference in the culture. At the same time, the guidance acknowledges training as one of the keys to preventing harassment. Employers wanting effective anti-harassment training are encouraged to look for training that’s conducted face-to-face, includes active participation with other trainees on interdependent tasks and is conducted by a supervisor or external expert.

The old training model covered policy and processes. New and improved training might also include such topics as bystander behavior, civility, emotional intelligence, empathy and hidden biases.

In the new #MeToo reality, organizational leaders at all levels are expected to model and encourage appropriate and professional behavior toward colleagues and direct reports as well as customers. Some organizations have overlooked bad behavior within leadership ranks or among top performers, trusting company anti-harassment policies to protect them. Daily examples in the news have revealed this strategy as costly in the long run both in terms of financial loss and public perception of the organization.

Harassment allegations — especially those that have been ignored or silenced — exact a huge toll on the brand.  Employers are highly encouraged to consult with their legal counsel to develop and sustain a culture free of harassment.