What do HR managers need to know about the EEOC’s initiative to eliminate workplace harassment?

16 Apr

Putting a stop to workplace harassment is a priority for the EEOC, and should be for employers as well.

HR manager software can help a human resource professional better manage payroll, training and time off. As anyone in the field knows, these systems are critical given the number of other tasks on HR's plate. From new workplace rules to government initiatives, there's a lot for human resource professionals to stay up to date on.

One of these government initiatives includes ending workplace harassment. So what exactly do internal teams need to know about it, and how will it impact them, if at all?

What constitutes as harassment and what role does the EEOC play?
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long aimed to ensure all workers, regardless of sex, race, disability or other defining characteristics, have the same opportunities in the workplace. The government body has also made a move to eliminate harassment many people face on the job. Harassment of this nature is illegal, but some employers may be unclear on the specifics. 

According to the EEOC, conduct becomes unlawful when it creates an environment that is hostile, offensive or intimidating to a reasonable person. This can include physical assaults, threats, offensive jokes or insults, intimidation, ridicule or a range of other activities. Minor isolated incidents and irritations do not fall under this umbrella and would thus not be considered illegal, unwelcome as they may be. 

Harassment doesn't have to come from a higher-up. While an offender may sometimes be a worker's manager, it's just as likely the harasser could be a coworker, contractor or even a non-employee. 

It's critical HR acts on harassment complaints, or better yet, tries to nip this problem in the bud. Employers are responsible for harassment from a manager that leads to an employee's termination, failure to get a promotion or pay cut, and are also liable for harassment from other individuals if they knew or should have known about the activity and didn't put a stop to it.

EEOC finds harassment still a significant issue
While employers are certainly aware of the detrimental impacts harassment brings to the workplace and most employees sign some sort of policy stating they understand their company's harassment policy, this is still a surprisingly large issue.

A January EECO meeting found that of all the complaints filed with the organization, about 30 percent allege workplace harassment. This indicates employers aren't doing enough to keep harassment out of the workplace, or employees find the any training sessions they currently undergo ineffective. 

Due to the high rate of alleged harassment, EEOC Chair Jenny Yang announced she would establish a task force aimed at determining what strategies would best help eliminate this common workplace problem.

"The EEOC is working to leverage our resources to have a greater impact on the persistent problem of workplace harassment," said Yang. "By identifying underlying problems in workplaces and industries where we see recurring patterns of harassment, we are developing strategies that focus on targeted outreach and education as well as systemic enforcement to promote broader voluntary compliance."

Data from the EEOC shows that the fiscal year ranging from Oct. 1, 2013 to Sept. 20, 2014 saw nearly 31,100 individuals claim they'd been harassed because of their race, while more than 26,000 said their sex was the reason behind the harassment. More than 25,300 and 20,000 said the same about their disability and age, respectively.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the rate of individuals alleging retaliation for reporting harassment hit a new high of nearly 43 percent during this period. 

How employers can stop harassment
Harassment is costly, with regard to time spent trying to settle the case, low employee morale, damages that may need to be paid and a damaged brand reputation. Rather than dealing with these problems as they arise, HR departments need to determine what they can do to stop this serious issue before it even starts. 

One of these things will include revisiting current harassment training programs, namely: Do any exist? If employees are simply signing off on a sheet saying they understand and will comply with company harassment policies, they may not understand the seriousness of the issue and that something they consider a joke could actually have significant repercussions in the long run. 

Creating stronger and more informative preventative training sessions is one area in which the EEOC's Yang thinks employers could focus on. 

"Preventing harassment from occurring in the first place is far preferable to remedying its consequences," she said in a press release. 

To do this, HR managers will need to determine what needs to be discussed at the sessions, potentially including:

  • What actions constitute harassment
  • Examples of harassment and why these are considered such
  • Which groups are protected from workplace harassment by law
  • Who can be accused of harassment
  • The legal repercussions if someone goes to the EEOC with a harassment complaint
  • What will happen to an individual accused of harassment

By getting ahead of this troubling trend, employers can protect themselves and their employees from harassment and the potential litigation that may fo​llow.

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