If there was any buzzword that reigned supreme over the past year related to workplace harassment and discrimination issues, it would be "civility." Given recent history, an emphasis on civility is a laudable goal.

As a nation, we have watched the complaints against large-scale media moguls turn into a movement encouraging women who have suffered harassment and discrimination to step into the light with their experiences -- the #MeToo movement.

The business community was forced to come to terms with the reality that sexual harassment in the workplace is not an aberration that takes place in the shadows, but an omnipresent reality and a condition of work for many employees.

When Harvey Weinstein's victims came forward, they provided accounts of the "wink-wink-nod-nod" culture of harassment that was so blatant that comedians actually joked about his behavior on national television.

The limited statistical data supports this assertion that harassment is not a clandestine action, but a part of the workplace culture for far too many companies.

A recent study published by National Public Radio reported that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men have experienced sexual harassment. Specifically, this survey exposed that extraordinarily deviant behavior like sexual assault is actually fairly common.

These reports come 30 years after employers began regularly providing sexual harassment training for employees. In 1998, the Supreme Court issued two opinions that had an impact on employer sexual harassment training, deciding companies that have hosted sexual harassment training may be able to avoid liability in a lawsuit.

Since these opinions, employee training on harassment and discrimination has focused on legal standards. Front line management has been instructed on what the law defines as a "hostile work environment" and/or sexual discrimination.

Managers watch slideshows that walk through the history of federal employment law and the standards that apply. The ultimate goal has always been risk management.

While a good step, these trainings have not accomplished a great deal. Given the gravity and inequity of the situation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency tasked with enforcing federal employment law, issued a new directive in October 2017.

The EEOC announced that training should focus on treating employees decently as opposed to simply teaching managers to recognize risk. This training has widely been dubbed as "civility training."

The goal of the training is to encourage employees to treat each other with respect and decency. Further, employees are encouraged to come forward to management, if they observe a co-worker not being treated with respect.

This EEOC initiative has led to a number of positive reforms. Employers have instituted new forms of training that focus on an inclusive and healthy work environment instead of just avoiding a lawsuit.

Along these lines, employers also have reinforced policies that demand that co-workers treat each other with civility. However, these trainings sometimes fail to point out that there are times when it is difficult to act civil.

When an employee has been harassed based on sex or race, the employee's response may not be civil as defined by the employer's code of conduct. Similarly, when an employee is frustrated from a perceived lack of response by management to his or her complaints of harassment or discrimination, the employee might behave in a way that defies the guidelines of civility.

The employer's response to an uncivil response in the face of harassment could define other employees' expectations of whether they can come forward. Even with the most noble of intentions, employers must understand the context of an employee's actions before taking disciplinary action.

If a person has stepped outside the bounds of civility because he or she has been treated in a grossly uncivil manner, any discipline against that employee could be seen as retaliation instead of enforcing workplace codes of conduct.

Originally published in Commercial Appeal

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