5 Key Points for Building a Best-in-Class Workplace Harassment Prevention Program

April 8, 2021 | Reskill Your Workforce | 5 min read

Whether you’re in HR, a learning professional, or a compliance officer, chances are you will, at some point, work on providing anti-harassment training for your company’s employees. Depending on where you’re located and if you have employees in multiple states, that work can be quite daunting as the requirements vary by location and change regularly. Completing a training checklist to avoid legal liability is not enough these days. There are indications that not all anti-harassment training is effective. And, we are in the midst of generational demand for companies to take a position on social issues. Now is the right time to rethink how we approach this important training area.

As you review your approach to anti-harassment training, you’ll want to consider these critical points on the topic to build a best-in-class harassment program.

Harassment is more than just sexual harassment. According to the EEOC, harassment is unwelcome conduct based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

The lines are blurred between harassment, bullying, and discrimination. There is a direct correlation between harassment and bullying and addressing them together makes sense. Bullying and harassment are both forms of hurtful or harmful behavior, but the difference is what motivates the hurtful or harmful behavior. Bullying becomes unlawful harassment when it is perpetrated against individuals based on color, national origin, race, religion, sex, age, disability, and genetic information. Unless it meets these criteria, bullying alone is not illegal. Because harassment involves protected classes, there are also blurred lines with discrimination. As it relates to discrimination, the EEOC received 67,488 new complaints of employment discrimination in 2020. Of those, 24,221 complaints also alleged harassment, indicating the frequent overlap of the two behaviors. A focus on anti-harassment training alone undercuts the end goal – to create a safe and inclusive work environment for employees. Employers should consider combining the topics into a more comprehensive approach.

Harassment can take on many forms. You’ll want to be sure that you address all forms of harassment. Just like in the physical workplace, many different forms of harassment and bullying, such as the list below, can occur virtually. Employees are particularly prone to hostile work environments where a physically distanced workplace creates a more relaxed atmosphere. Virtual harassment can include:

  • Threats made via email or instant messaging 
  • Electronic communications that contain racist, gender-biased, or other offensive material
  • Spreading rumors about an employee or purposefully keeping them out of the loop on a project that should include them
  • Text or instant messages complaining about an employee’s work in an excessive manner
  • Inappropriate material on display during video calls
  • Shutting down someone’s contributions to a discussion, for example, by muting their line selectively
  • Unwanted invitations to date

Instances of remote workforce harassment are far too common. One 2020 study on workplace cyberbullying conducted found that 17% of the general Finnish population had experienced cyberbullying, using electronic communication to intimidate or threaten, at work. In a recent Compliance Week survey, nearly 21% of respondents reported seeing an increase in inappropriate communications or conduct on messaging platforms and video meeting applications.

Remote workers are vulnerable, and even tech-savvy companies must re-evaluate their policies and remind employees of their rules.

The EEOC takes a position onprevention. The EEOC considers prevention the best tool to eliminate harassment in the workplace, and employers are encouraged to take appropriate steps to prevent and correct unlawful harassment. They should clearly communicate to employees that unwelcome harassing conduct will not be tolerated. They can do this by establishing an effective complaint or grievance process, providing anti-harassment training to their managers and employees, and taking immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.

After studying the existing training landscape, here are some critical insights from the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study on Harassment in the Workplace:

  • Some training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool - it's been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.
  • Effective training can reduce workplace harassment. Employers should also recognize that ineffective training can be unhelpful or even counterproductive.
  • However, even effective training cannot occur in a vacuum - it must be part of a holistic culture of non-harassment that starts at the top.
  • Similarly, one size does not fit all: training is most effective when tailored to the specific workforce and workplace, and different cohorts of employees.

You should be thoughtful about your approach to harassment prevention. To read more about what constitutes effective training, read this blog post, Does Anti-Harassment Training Work?

Employees care about this topic. As social issues are frequently in the news, harassment, discrimination, and bullying continue to evolve in their importance to the workforce. Employees increasingly want to work for organizations where the cultural values align with their own. In 2020, Gartner research showed that 74% of employees expect their employer to become more actively involved in the cultural debates of the day. Employers should take notice of the unique opportunity to look at these things holistically to provide a safe and inclusive workplace for all.

With these important considerations in mind, you can begin to formulate a more strategic and comprehensive approach that can create a safer and more inclusive environment for your employees, a purpose far nobler than simply checking the “training complete” box.

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