In June of this year, the EEOC published a report which concluded that sexual harassment prevention efforts in the workplace are failing and need to be updated. The EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace found that after decades of corporate sexual harassment training and widespread awareness of sexual harassment, “almost one-third of the roughly 90,000 charges filed with EEOC in FY 2015 included an allegation of harassment.” According to EEOC Commissioner Victoria Lipnic, training to prevent workplace harassment has been ineffective. “In simplest terms,” the Commissioner said, “training must change.”
As an employer, you already know that you have a responsibility to maintain a workplace free of sexual harassment. Although it’s a legal obligation, it’s good business sense too. But if your company’s sexual harassment training is ineffective, you may end up with poor morale, low productivity, and harassment lawsuits. Your company’s sexual harassment training probably needs to be updated, so that—in the words of EEOC Commissioner Lipnic—it is “part of a holistic, committed effort to combat harassment, focused on the specific culture and needs of a particular workplace.”
Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Any conduct of a sexual nature that makes an employee uncomfortable has the potential to be sexual harassment. It’s a broad definition, but that’s because sexual harassment comes in many forms. Sexual harassment is a gender-neutral offense, at least in theory. Most harassment complaints are still brought by women claiming they have been sexually harassed by men, although complaints from men regarding women, as well as same-sex harassment allegations, have slowly been increasing.
What can an employer do to revise your sexual harassment training so that it effectively eliminates harassment in your own workplace? Training needs to be explicit about what is prohibited. Obviously, outright sexual harassment can’t be tolerated, whether that harassment is in the form of verbal comments, company emails, or offensive posts on bulletin boards. Take into account your own company’s history and culture and the type of people you tend to hire so that the training can be tailored to your company’s specific needs. Training at a medical facility should differ somewhat from the training for a retail store’s employees, for example.
Employers must make it clear to employees that unwanted sexual advances, unwanted physical contact, sexually explicit jokes, belittling and demeaning comments, and even nonverbal acts like leering or whistling at someone’s appearance will result in disciplinary action or even termination. Define sexual harassment, provide abundant examples, and explain the consequences. Your company’s employee handbook should also:
- Define sexual harassment and express your company’s unwillingness to tolerate it.
- Establish a precise procedure for filing sexual harassment complaints.
- Caution that you will fully investigate every sexual harassment complaint.
- Explain the consequences of sexual harassment.
- Guarantee that retaliation will not be tolerated against anyone bringing a sexual harassment complaint.
Conduct sexual harassment training sessions for employees at least once a year. Don’t hesitate to ask an employment lawyer or a civil rights attorney to help you. Teach your employees what sexual harassment is, explain that they have a right to a workplace free of sexual harassment, outline the sexual harassment complaint procedure, and encourage its use. You should also conduct for managers and supervisors separate educational sessions about how to spot sexual harassment and how to handle sexual harassment complaints.
If you aren’t already teaching the principle of “bystander intervention,” that is, the third-party reporting of sexual harassment, that may be the revision you need to make. EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum suggests, “Bystander intervention training can create a sense of collective responsibility on the part of workers and empower them to be engaged bystanders in preventing harassment. With leadership support, bystander intervention training could be a game changer in the workplace.”
One final suggestion: Monitor your workplace. Talk to your employees. Be accessible and try to get a sense of the comfort level or tension level in your workplace. Is it all comradery, or do you sense any discomfort or hostility among your employees? Employers must take every sexual harassment complaint seriously and investigate every complaint fully, but staying in touch and staying accessible can help you keep sexual harassment and complaints from happening – and that’s the goal.
Author: Frederick J. Geonetta is a Partner at Geonetta & Frucht in San Francisco. For 25 years, Mr. Geonetta’s practice has focused on personal injury, civil rights, and employment law.