Bullying at Work: EEOC Won’t Take It Anymore

The term “workplace harassment” often conjures images of 1950s-style gender-based pestering where men made women feel uncomfortable and powerless through comments and touch that would not fly in today’s workplace - "Mad Men" style.

The issue has become much wider than just gender though, and is recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court. By its definition, harassment can include ethnic, racial, age, disability, color, religion, pregnancy, and gender-identity harassment.

More importantly, employers can be held liable for racial, religious and sexual harassment if they fail to exercise reasonable care to prevent (or promptly correct) harassing behavior in their work environment, even if they were not aware of specific actions. This means that education about and awareness of harassment should be a top priority for organizations.

“Abusive, coercive behavior that is repeated and habitual”

“Bullying,” as defined by behaviorists Janna Juvonen and Sandra Graham in an article titled “Bullying in Schools: The Power of Bullies and the Plight of Victims,” is the use of “force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others. The behavior is often repeated and habitual. One essential prerequisite is the perception, by the bully or by others, of an imbalance of social or physical power, which distinguishes bullying from conflict.”

In a revealing June 2016 report, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace found that up to 60% of workers have experienced race- or ethnicity-based harassment in the workplace. The 18-month study also outlined seven other conclusions showing that America’s workplaces are in dire need of change. (And two of the seven mandate the need for change in workforce training.)

The Big 7 EEOC Conclusions

  1. Workplace harassment remains a persistent problem. One-third of the 90,000 charges received by EEOC in fiscal year 2015 included an allegation of workplace harassment.
  2. Workplace harassment too often goes unreported. Three out of four employees who experienced harassment never mentioned it to a supervisor, manager, or union representative.
  3. There is a compelling business case for stopping and preventing harassment. Last year, EEOC recovered $164.5 million for workers alleging harassment—direct costs that are just a small piece of offending organizations’ monetary outlay, which also includes decreased productivity, increased turnover, reputable harm, and—for some—the shuttering of the business.
  4. It starts at the top—leadership and accountability are critical. Workplace culture—leadership—has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to thrive…or conversely, to be prevented and in its place, a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace promoted.
  5. Training must change. Most training over the past 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool—it’s been too much about avoiding legal liability. Such training is not only ineffective—it can actually be counterproductive. Training has to be integral to an organization-wide culture of non-harassment that starts at the top. And training is most effective when customized for the specific workforce and workplace, and for various groups of employees…with middle managers and first-line supervisors key to modeling the behavior.
  6. New and different approaches to training should be explored. New models of harassment training, focusing not on the negative behavior itself, but rather on modifications in ways of thinking, show promise.
  7. It’s On Us. Workplace cultures don’t change themselves. Some organizations are using It’s On Us campaigns, in conjunction with their training programs, to move the focus of workplace harassment from targets, harassers, and legal compliance to empowering all employees to help in stopping—preventing—harassment.

Creative training techniques for mandated compliance

Again, the law states that organizations can be held liable for racial, religious and sexual harassment if they fail to exercise reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct harassing behavior in their work environment—even if they were not aware of specific actions. This means that initial and ongoing harassment training should be a priority for any organization. Ideally, it should cover not just racial, religious, and sexual harassment, but bullying or manipulation based on ethnicity, age, and varied abilities as well. The consequences of non-compliance include fines, costly lawsuits, and even the likelihood of being forced out of business.

What are some effective training tools for your particular organization’s anti-bullying campaign and training? We have some suggestions to consider:

  • Aim for Clarity: Make sure all employees know what constitutes harassment. This is so basic as to be frequently overlooked, but they can’t report, avoid, or prevent it if they don’t know what it is.
  • Provide training that aligns with your organizational mission, vision, and goals: this is part of modifying your workplace culture, and you’ll be enhancing commitment to the organization’s values while integrating the anti-bullying mindset.
  • Provide diversity training: Again, this is basic. But sometimes employees bring in attitudes from the outside—perhaps from their communities or even their own families—that need a spotlight shined on them to create recognition.
  • Explore “Bystander Intervention” training: Used increasingly to combat sexual violence on school campuses, this approach trains and empowers co-workers to intervene when they witness harassing behavior.
  • Try civility training: Focuses on simple awareness in promoting respect and civility in the workplace.
  • Role play: A time-honored tool, role play is an effective way to make behavior modification fun. You can exponentially increase its impact by involving employees from all levels of the organization … including those at the C-level.

Even within these practices there are a number of options for minimizing harassment in a way that jibes with your organization’s unique employee composition, culture, challenges, and objectives. If you would like to see some innovative ways to present compliance and harassment issues to employees, ask for a free trial and checkout our video library for courses on harassment.

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