Harassment training: Is it really necessary?

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), approximately 30% of all EEOC charges filed contain an allegation of “harassment.” Tens of millions of dollars are spent each year settling harassment claims at the EEOC. In 2014 alone, the agency reports approximately $35 million was spent resolving sexual harassment claims and more than $68 million was spent resolving non-sexual harassment claims. These figures don’t include all of the money spent in litigation each year alleging workplace harassment.

Your organization is committed to providing a work environment that is free from discrimination and unlawful harassment. You have a written policy in your handbook that states that you will not tolerate discrimination and harassment on the basis of all applicable federal and state protected classes. Isn’t that enough?

It’s a good start. An effective harassment policy will:

  • Describe employee rights and responsibilities.
  • Explain what harassment is.
  • Provide examples of harassment.
  • Outline the harassment reporting procedure.
  • Make it clear that retaliation for reporting harassment claims will not be tolerated.
  • Set forth a general process for investigating harassment complaints.

The EEOC and the Supreme Court have stated prevention is one of the key components to avoiding liability for workplace harassment. But even the best harassment policy will not prevent workplace harassment unless all of your employees understand what workplace harassment is and their role in preventing it from occurring in the first place. Accordingly, harassment training is an essential part of your organization’s efforts to ensure your workplace is harassment-free.



Harassment training in action

Effective harassment training for your employees will prevent common workplace problems from ever occurring. Your employees will learn that the “eye of the beholder” is what is most important, not what the employee personally thinks is offensive. Your employees will be taught to take inappropriate workplace conduct seriously, to refuse to participate in inappropriate conversations, and to report inappropriate behavior even when the behavior is not directed at the reporting employee.

Harassment training for managers will reinforce their vital role in monitoring the workplace and will explain to them the dangers of ignoring inappropriate workplace behaviors. When employees observe their managers immediately and effectively addressing inappropriate workplace behavior, even in the absence of a complaint being filed, they will understand and have confidence that “something will be done” and will be more likely to report harassing behavior as soon as they see it.

According to Eden King, associate professor of psychology at George Mason University, who recently testified before the EEOC Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, harassment training is most likely to be effective when it:

  • Lasts more than four hours;
  • Is conducted face-to-face;
  • Includes active participation; and
  • Is conducted by a supervisor or external expert.

Keep in mind that harassment training is not a “one and done” proposition. Trainings must occur periodically and the lessons learned in the trainings must be reinforced. Employers who ensure no adverse action is taken against harassment victims, who take reasonable care to prevent and correct harassing behavior, and who provide their employees with reasonable opportunities to avoid harm may have an affirmative legal defense to otherwise actionable harassment claims, which can be a huge benefit to your organization. However, these actions also help employers achieve the ultimate goal: creating and maintaining a harassment-free workplace.

Janice Pintar, JD, is an HR consultant at Associated Financial Group.

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