United States: EEOC Commissioners Feldblum's And Lipnic's Clarion Call To Prevent And Stop Harassment

I am pleased to share my latest post to the SHRM blog regarding the EEOC's report on harassment in the workplace.

Today marks the 30th Anniversary of the Supreme Court's holding that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. It seems obvious to all of us today, but it was not at the time the EEOC took the position. It was not until SCOTUS said the EEOC was right that the EEOC's enforcement position became the law of the land.

Today, SHRM had the honor of having EEOC Commissioners Chai Feldblum and Victoria Lipnic present, to an overflowing crowd, "Agency Update: EEOC's Task Force on Harassment in the Workplace." After receiving a warm introduction from Lisa Horn, SHRM's Director of Congressional Affairs, who acknowledged the strong relationship between SHRM and the two EEOC Commissioners, the two EEOC Commissioners talked about the reason for the Select Task Force, the study it conducted and the report it is releasing tomorrow (Check out www.eeoc.gov).

The Task Force was announced in January of 2015 by the EEOC's Chair, Jenny R. Yang. Her message: We have made a lot of progress, but the problem is persistent. She named Commissioners Feldblum and Lipnic as Co-Chairs of the Task Force.

Commissioners Feldblum and Lipnic made clear the purpose of the Select Task Force was to prevent harassment before it becomes actionable. This includes not only sexual harassment claims but also harassment claims based on other protected groups, such as race, color, age and religion.

Last year alone, the EEOC collected $164.5 million for workers in cases alleging harassment. That does not include recoveries by plaintiffs' lawyers.

For employers, however, harassment is not only an economic risk, but also a business risk. First, there is the reputational cost. There also is decreased productivity and higher turnover.

The Commissioners emphasized that having policies and procedures is not enough. According to the Commissioners, the importance of leadership is key.

Leaders must make clear that harassment will not be tolerated. But a commitment (even from the C-Suite) is not enough. Like all other employees, leaders must be held accountable for what they do—and what they don't do.

There must be a "proportionate" response to harassing behavior. To use an expression familiar to all of us in the HR community, "one size does not fit all."

But, it is more than holding all employees accountable for unacceptable conduct, even "superstars" who bring in the money. The Commissioners emphasized we must hold accountable those whose job it is to prevent and correct harassment.

Although these were not the precise words used, the message for supervisors and above was clear: to see or hear harassing behavior and do nothing is to condone it.

Throughout the discussion, the Commissioners made clear that, when talking about harassment, they were talking about inappropriate behavior with regard to a protected group (such as sex, race or ethnicity), even if it does not rise to the level of severity or pervasiveness to be actionable. The goal: to stop it before it becomes actionable.

That led to a critical discussion about training. The Commissioners made clear that, while training is necessary, it alone is not enough. Rather, it must be part of a "holistic culture of non-harassment that starts from the top."

Further, to be effective, the training ideally should be "live, in person and customized to your workplace." Moreover, the training should be developed with "risk factors" in mind.

The EEOC report that will be released tomorrow includes "risk factors" that make harassment more likely. Younger workers, workers who work in remote locations and those who are dependent on tips, for example, are at particular risk.

Based on my experience, I agree fully with the EEOC that the training must focus on what is inappropriate, even if it is not necessarily unlawful. If you focus only on the legal, then individuals who engage in inappropriate conduct may feel more secure in their inappropriate conduct because it is neither severe nor pervasive enough to be illegal.

The EEOC Commissioners also talked about "bystander training" that is common on many school campuses. They talked about adopting this kind of training so that co-workers feel empowered to intervene and have the tools to do so.

Recognizing that the law does not require civility, the EEOC Commissioners also called for civility training. Feldblum said that incivility and disrespect are "gateway drugs" for harassment. I agree.

Stated otherwise, if you tolerate incivility and disrespect, your culture will be fertile for harassment claims. I surely hope the NLRB was listening.

To minimize your NLRB risk, employers are well advised to give examples of civil and uncivil behavior. Providing specific examples, properly phrased, makes it less likely that the NLRB will believe a reasonable person will perceive the guidance as discouraging behavior protected by section 7 of the NLRA. So there is no confusion, this is my take on how to mitigate (not eliminate) the risk.

An underlying theme is the importance of creating not only policies, but also a culture that brooks no retaliation. Fear of retaliation is the number one reason why employees suffer in silence.

According to studies cited by the Commissioners, approximately 70-percent of employees who feel harassed do not report it. That is not good for them or their organizations.

The EEOC's presentation was a clarion call for all of us to do more to prevent and stop harassment. It will not go away on its own. It's on all of us, with HR playing a key role, to be part of the fight.

On a personal note, it was an honor to have been on the Task Force with co-SHRM member Patricia Wise. I think I can speak for Patty and me in saying that we both learned a great deal as a result of the study and dialogue, and we are ready to help do our part in helping companies do the right things for their employees and themselves by eliminating the persistent but conquerable problem: workplace harassment.

Finally, at a time when we see so much dysfunction in Washington, D.C., it was inspiring to see the bi-partisan collaboration of Commissioners Feldblum and Lipnic. Bi-partisanship is not dead—at least not at the EEOC.

Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.

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