Sexual Harassment Prevention Training Essential

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Every employer with 15 or more employees needs to require employees to attend sexual harassment prevention training. That is the takeaway that businesses need to understand from a new task force report on harassment in the workplace that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published in June 2016.

The EEOC’s report states that businesses have “to reboot workplace harassment prevention efforts.” The EEOC is especially concerned that most sexual harassment  prevention training focuses only on defining harassment and telling employees what they are prohibited legally from doing.

Instead, the EEOC is encouraging (read: requiring) businesses to also include workplace civility training and bystander intervention training. If a disgruntled employee makes an illegal harassment claim against your business in the future, the EEOC, as the investigating agency, is going to immediately require your business to provide evidence that you thoroughly trained your employees on these new topics. If the harassment complaint goes to trial, this training will also be your best defense.

Bystander Intervention Training is defined by the EEOC report as training that helps employees identify unwelcome and offensive behavior and creates collective responsibility to step in and take action when they see other employees exhibit problematic behaviors. The training is geared towards empowering employees to intervene when they see unacceptable conduct and gives them resources to do so.

Workplace civility training focuses on teaching employees to abide by reasonable expectations of respect and cooperation in the workplace. The emphasis is supposed to be positive—what the employees should do—rather than those things they are prohibited from doing. The training needs to include navigation of interpersonal relationships, an understanding of conflict resolution and teaching supervisors how to be civility coaches. In other words, it is now the company’s responsibility to teach workers how to be responsible, respectful professionals. On the job training and supervisor modeling is fine, but you need to add formal in-house training also.

Interestingly, at the same time that the EEOC is “encouraging” employers to promote more civility in the workplace and to prevent bullying and harassment, the National Labor Relations Board is issuing decisions that punish non-unionized businesses for written policies requiring employees to be respectful to coworkers.

The NRLB has repeatedly found that a company is infringing on an employee’s labor rights when the employer enforces handbook policies like this one from T-Mobile’s employee manual: “Employees are expected to maintain a positive work environment by communicating in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships with clients, co-workers and management.” The NRLB thinks that kind of policy has a chilling effect on employees who have a right to discuss with coworkers all of the terms and conditions of their employment. I’ve alerted you about the NRLB’s crusade against policy manuals before.

So you as an employer are left with trying to decide whether to be investigated and sued by the NLRB or the EEOC. Personally, I would choose training and policies that require civility and respect in the workplace regardless of what the NRLB says. It makes the EEOC happy and makes your workplace much more pleasant and productive.

But pleasing the EEOC isn’t always easy either. The EEOC made it very clear in the report on sexual harassment prevention that the training the EEOC now expects needs to be live (no internet or self-paced videos), interactive, customized to the particular workplace culture and policies, in multiple languages (if applicable in your workplace) and tailored to varying learning styles and levels of education. The EEOC also expects the training to give the employees multiple avenues to report and walk them carefully through the reporting process. Lower-level and mid-level supervisors need additional training to prevent and address harassment before it escalates.

The EEOC even spelled out the workplaces that it considered most likely to be at risk for harassment claims. These workplaces include, but aren’t limited to, young workforces, companies that allow or encourage alcohol consumption, businesses with many locations but only one centralized administration and workplaces that have employees with significant cultural and language differences, or alternatively, workplaces that are very homogeneous (such as predominately male workplaces).

Essentially, the EEOC is requiring companies with more than 15 employees to invest significant financial resources and work time into preventing harassment and bullying. If you have never provided sexual harassment prevention training to your workforce, it would be foolish to ignore this EEOC report. Even if you have provided training previously, it appears that now you need to provide significantly more involved education to your workforce on harassment prevention, bystander intervention and civility.

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