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In June 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued an urgent call for comprehensive workplace harassment training.

Specifically, in a report released by the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, EEOC commissioners Chai R. Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic called on businesses throughout the U.S. to "reboot workplace harassment prevention efforts" as quickly as possible.

Efforts to address workplace harassment in the past 30 years haven't succeeded in eradicating this challenging problem, the report notes. "In simplest terms, training must change," Lipnic said. Training "needs to be part of a holistic, committed effort to combat harassment, focused on the specific culture and needs of a particular workplace."

The 16-member task force - made up of attorneys, academics, social scientists, employer and employee advocacy groups, representatives of labor, and others - began work in early 2015. The report produced by the task force contains numerous suggestions for preventing harassment (with a detailed chart of harassment risk factors), as well as new policies and procedures to sharply reduce incidents of harassment, and recommendations for future research and funding. A key objective is offering HR professionals the resources they need to educate business leaders on this challenge and promote efforts to shift cultures towards more respect and fair treatment for all employees.

Any unwelcome conduct based on sex, race, color, national origin, age (40 and over), disability, genetic information, or any other protected class is considered harassment and becomes unlawful when employees are forced to endure offensive behavior in order to keep their jobs or when the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment a reasonable person would consider hostile, intimidating, or abusive.

According to the report, the best approach consists of customized harassment-prevention training of employees, and includes:

  • Describing types of behavior that might fit the description of illegal harassment,
  • Offering training in a variety of languages and allowing for a range of learning styles and levels of education,
  • Making clear what conduct is not considered harassment and is, therefore, acceptable in a work environment,
  • Outlining in easy-to-understand terms how a formal complaint process works.

The report also identifies that training middle-management and first-line supervisors can be the heart of an organization's prevention efforts.

Two types of training methods are promoted by the task force:

1. Workplace Civility Training
Contending that an environment of respect and civility can diminish incidents of bullying and conflict, the report calls for workplace civility training "that is focused on the positive - what employees and managers should do, rather than on what they should not do." Training components include a close look at workplace norms, what types of behavior are appropriate and inappropriate, and training that educates employees on interpersonal skills and conflict resolution.

2. Bystander Intervention Training
This type of training seeks to empower employees with the ability to recognize questionable workplace behavior and to motivate them to act with a sense of collective responsibility. With customized skill-building exercises, bystanders gain the abilities and confidence needed to intervene in a situation at the appropriate time. Also, such training offers resources for bystanders to deepen their understanding of what's needed to support timely intervention.

The release of this report highlights the need for businesses across the country to closely examine their current non-harassment policies.  Employers should re-examine their workplace to look for any harassment risk factors, as well as re-assess the quality of their current training programs and deliver models.  Employers’ non-harassment message needs to go beyond communication of a company policy, but rather they should also provide in-depth explanations of what constitutes civility and respect. As a best practice, management & top executives could receive separate training in order to promote non-harassment at the highest levels. Businesses should always look to find new ways to communicate their organization's commitment to prevent all forms of unwanted conduct, especially as technology and their workplace demographic changes. If employees understand that non-harassment is a top priority, they are far more likely to be engaged in the training process and conduct themselves appropriately.

As the Select Task Force Report notes, of the approximately 90,000 charges filed with the EEOC in 2015, nearly one-third included allegations of workplace harassment. This is simply too high a figure for any "employer of choice" to tolerate. Now is the time to ensure you are doing all you can to help protect your employees from harassing behavior of any kind.