Ask any employer who has had a sexual harassment discrimination charge made against them—is this something that you’d like to do again? Not likely. Even setting aside the costs of investigating and responding to a charge (or defending an eventual lawsuit), harassment charges—or even just complaints—have the potential to significantly disrupt the workplace, polarize the workforce, damage personal relationships, and make it difficult or impossible to retain valuable personnel.
It makes good business sense to take reasonable steps to minimize the costs and risks presented by sexual and other forms of harassment in your workplace, and to invest in cultivating practices that are most likely to help your company avoid that risk. But what kinds of steps will help to manage that risk? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace identified five “core principles” that it cites as generally proving to be effective in preventing and addressing harassment:
- Committed and engaged leadership;
- Consistent and demonstrated accountability;
- Strong and comprehensive harassment policies;
- Trusted and accessible complaint procedures; and
- Regular, interactive training tailored to the audience and the organization.
All employees benefit from effective harassment training that includes descriptions of prohibited harassment, examples that are tailored to the specific workplace and workforce, explanations of the range of possible consequences for engaging in prohibited conduct, information on the employee’s rights and responsibilities if they experience or observe prohibited conduct, and explanations of the complaint procedure and contacts.
To have “committed and engaged leadership” your supervisors and managers must have all of this training and more since they also have additional responsibilities under the law. Company leadership sets the tone for the culture of your organization, and supervisors and managers are the front line of modeling the behavior that is desired by the company. Thus, the EEOC has recommended that supervisors and managers receive additional training including:
- Information on how to prevent, identify, stop, report and correct harassment;
- What, when and how to report up the chain of command;
- How to respond to complainants;
- Preventing prohibited retaliation against a complainant or person cooperating in an investigation, including the types of conduct that are protected;
- Consequences of failing to fulfill responsibilities related to harassment, retaliation and other prohibited conduct.
Supervisors and managers need to know the special position that they occupy. Providing appropriate supervisor and manager training helps the supervisor to prevent offending behavior, address observed or reported behavior promptly, and even provides the company with some defenses to later charges of discrimination. While there is considerable utility to providing some online harassment training resources for your supervisors and managers, the EEOC has placed considerable emphasis on the importance of providing live, interactive training by qualified trainers AND for that training to be tailored to the specific circumstances of your workplace. A supervisor who has walked through the steps of a report of harassment in an interactive setting will be far better prepared to respond when a fearful or distraught employee comes to them for help. Supervisors need the opportunity to ask questions and get guidance so that they are comfortable in their important role as part of the company anti-harassment policy. Like any important training, supervisor anti-harassment training should recur on a regular schedule to build on and reinforce the company’s message and expectations.
The business case for this type of training does not end there. Once supervisors and managers have a clear understanding of what is expected by the company, they can begin to make those small, incremental corrections with employees (and themselves!) that nip offensive or problematic behavior in the bud. They can model and promote the behavior that exemplifies your desired company culture. Alert and well-trained supervisors will also be able to recognize and react to a pattern of behavior in one or more employees that, left unchecked, could allow a hostile environment to develop. Ultimately, supervisors and managers are the first line of defense in ensuring your workplace becomes and remains harassment free and the company investment in their training will reap considerable returns.
Every workplace is different—but the need for training is universal. For help with anti-harassment training your supervisors and managers, contact the employment lawyers at Drewry Simmons Vornehm.