What we can learn from EEOC’s proposed guidance on harassment prevention training

On March 21, 2017 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission closed the period for public comment on its Proposed Enforcement Guidance on Unlawful Harassment.  Now the matter at hand will be a review of those comments and decisions regarding the EEOC’s final guidance.

One notable recommendation within the proposed guidance was how to improve harassment prevention training.  The EEOC rightfully noted that current training programs are falling short of meeting harassment prevention goals and are therefore not acceptable in their present format.  EEOC’s recommendations to correct this problem include that training should be:

I have been involved with harassment prevention training for 15 years.  A common complaint that I hear from people who are accustomed to the standard anti-harassment training programs is that they and their coworkers have been “checking off those boxes” for their employers for decades, yet once those boxes are checked, everyone promptly goes back to business as usual for another year.  Sadly, that experience is very common.

If employers truly want to prevent harassment, simply showing a video or having employees read a policy will not achieve that objective.  As with any training that sticks, employers must focus on The Four R’s of impactful training: Relevance, Reflection, Reinforcement and Results.  In this sense, the EEOC’s proposed guidance is exactly on target.

First, the training must be relevant to the workplace.  Providing universally-designed harassment training (such as what we find in many training videos) can be a good first step for establishing common language and baseline understanding, but without providing a relevant link back to actual potential workplace scenarios, universal training often misses the mark.  Ask yourself what tasks your employees perform that can place them in potential harassment situations.  Make sure you can answer how your employees can defend themselves if those situations arise, and then share those scenarios with your staff.

When offering training, employees need the opportunity to reflect on the material.  This is where an interactive program is required.  Some video training provides for an interactive element, but that interactivity remains an electronic exchange, so your training must also provide employees with the opportunity to engage in dialogue, to ask questions, and to request coaching and clarifications.  Ideally, it offers employees the chance to explore why certain actions are perceived as harassing.

Dr. Jane Vella, author and founder of Global Learning Partners, noted in her book, Learning to Listen; Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults, that accountable learning requires three things: “Time, time, and time.”  The lack of reinforcement is the usual reason for most training failures.  Training new skills takes time, and training new behaviors requires even more time.  Harassment training, therefore, should not be limited to once per year.  It must be an ongoing initiative, reinforced through regularly scheduled training and a cultural commitment to respect.

Finally, employers need to understand what results they are seeking.  In doing so, the employer also needs to consider what results the EEOC wants.  Unfortunately, employers have been led to believe that by simply having employees check a training box annually, the employers have a viable defense against harassment claims.  The EEOC is expressing concerns that check-the-box training is not effective, and employers need to take heed of this view.  Employers need to ask themselves whether they are seeking a measure of defense or whether they are seeking to eliminate harassment from their workplace.  If either is the case, then the first three R’s are imperative to achieving those results.

So how does one go about providing training that actually prevents harassment?  While there are no absolute guarantees, the EEOC does note that workplace civility training has shown “significant promise for preventing harassment in the workplace.”  The EEOC recommends consideration for workplace civility as well as bystander intervention training.

Civility has evaporated in many areas of our lives, from social media interaction to mass media outlets to our own boardrooms.  Regaining a healthy measure of civility goes a long way toward building respect for one another, and as a bonus it equips employees with the skills to offer outstanding customer service, which can produce a positive impact on the company’s bottom line.

So how do your harassment prevention training and policies measure up?  The EEOC’s Executive Summary and Recommendations report offers an excellent benchmark to use in evaluating your harassment prevention initiatives. You can find that document here: https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment/report_summary.cfm.

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