The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) held a public meeting in Washington, DC this morning to report on the governing body’s work over the past year, including employment and harassment cases, the Strategic Plan for the next four years, and approved litigation – 31 cases – since the assembly’s last meeting. Convened by Commissioners Victoria A. Lipnic (Chairperson), Charlotte Burrows, and Chai R. Feldblum, the meeting drew hundreds of audience members, including employers, workplace assault survivors, attorneys, and community leaders.
The EEOC Select Task Force issued a 2016 report which studied workplace harassment, its impact on workers, and key components necessary to change organizational culture, prevent harassment, and foster accountability. During the meeting, Commissioner Feldblum shared that the report’s Roadmap Components included workplace culture, accountability, policies and procedures and training. Commissioner Burrows opined that while the #MeToo movement initially began a decade ago, its more recent momentum over the last year is a timely complement to the Co-Chairs’ Report.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the deliberations was the testimony on Revamping Workplace Culture to Prevent Harassment, during which panelists shared how their respective organizations are tackling harassment – sexual, gender, social, and cultural – through awareness campaigns, training, and leadership accountability.
Alejandra Valles, Secretary-Treasurer of SEIU United Service Workers West, detailed the pervasive harassment culture for janitorial service workers the union represents. Citing the supervisor structure (all male) and composition of the janitors (80% women), Valles chronicled examples of harassment and assault in an environment that often exploited worker vulnerabilities, including immigration and economic status. She, and panelist Veronica Girón, highlighted the Ya Basta Campaign, which encourages female workers to speak up about harassment, creates topic and audience-specific training, and generates a culture of respect. The Campaign also engages male workers committed to a harassment-free work environment.
Now, said Valles, their approach to harassment is “prevention as a goal and liability as a tactic,” adding that new hires now engage in training within the first 60 days of employment. Annual training sessions are offered in Spanish and peer-to-peer support has fostered a more collaborative work environment.
The bottom line, according to panelist David Bowman, is that harassment prevention should be a “business imperative” that begins with a leadership and organizational culture assessment. Bowman, who is a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, believes that communication, a focus on safe work environments, and mentoring employees are starting points for addressing workplace harassment. He cautioned that leaders, CEOs and senior-level employees, should “refrain from interfering with HR” during investigations, which can have an adverse impact on employee morale and potentially lead to more legal issues.
Anne Wallestad, President of BoardSource, emphasized that a major component of harassment prevention goes beyond accountability by frontline employees and direct supervisors. She said that Board leadership should bear equal responsibility in combatting workplace harassment, including creating a formal whistleblower policy, annual evaluation of the organization’s president, staff climate surveys, and developing employee retention metrics.
She emphasized that Board members are “somewhat removed from those day-to-day realities” that could shed light on potential issues and harassment trends. Wallestad added that forty percent of organizations don’t conduct annual CEO evaluations, which gives the governing body a “false sense of security” in potentially problematic presidents, who may not address harassment by employees, or seek to conceal their own transgressions.
Rob Buelow, Vice President of EVERFI, echoed the need for a comprehensive harassment prevention strategy. Buelow said that his company’s approach to helping clients establish harassment prevention programs is akin to public health: assess and diagnose the issue before it becomes an epidemic to the population. Using a “values-based approach” to addressing intervention and creating a prevention model includes four key areas – compliance, content, design, and data. During his testimony, Rob Buelow noted that design and data are essential to creating impactful harassment prevention programs, corresponding training, and tracking outcomes. From online instruction to communication campaigns that address organizational issues, he said that the primary focus should be on the “root causes and deterring the behaviors that cause harassment” before instituting a prevention plan.
There was plenty of discussion during the testimony about civility, or the lack thereof, in the workplace. Many panelists concurred that the lack of civil conversation and interactions between employees leads to an environment where harassment thrives. Dr. Christine Porath, Associate Professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, has researched and reported on how civility creates a healthier and inclusive work environment. Conversely, incivility can create a climate in which “harassment is more likely…permissible and tolerated,” according to Porath.
Citing a study of more than 20,000 organizations that deliberately incorporate civility training, Porath said that 92% experienced greater focus and 55% reported more overall engagement in the workplace. The training “benefits all employees,” Porath opined, resulting in employee trust, collaboration, creativity and increased performance. It also “reduces emotional exhaustion” that often accompanies being around coworkers who are discourteous.
Creator of the organizational values-driven leadership program, Giving Voice to Values (GVV), Dr. Mary C. Gentile said that workplace harassment can be addressed and reduced using the GVV model. She said that values-driven leadership “focuses on ethical implementation” of harassment prevention measures. The Giving Voice to Values program seeks to help employees “rewire the unconscious process that stops most of us from intervention” and “develop the moral muscle memory,” added the Gentile, who is a Professor of Practice at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.
Based on the Co-Chairs report and meeting testimony, Commissioner Chair Lipnic concluded that there should be a “sustained effort” by organizational leaders to address and eliminate workplace harassment using a holistic approach.
Editor’s Note: Public comments on today’s deliberations about workplace harassment are open for fifteen days. Responses should be mailed to Commission Meeting, EEOC Executive Officer, 131 M Street, NE, Washington, DC 20507, or email CommissionMeetingComments@eeoc.gov.
Resources from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
EEOC Commission Report
Small Business Resources
Rape on the Night Shift Documentary – Frontline on PBS
National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline (RAINN)
About the Author: Kesi Stribling
About ATS: Since its original debut in 2004 as Midweek Musings, ASK THE STRATEGIST is a blog that highlights information on business, entrepreneurship, careers and the workplace, the economy, health, community, and women. Any content or advice dispensed through Ask The Strategist is solely for informational and entertainment purposes. All content, unless otherwise noted, is the property of Ask the Strategist and its affiliates, and may not be re-published without express written permission from the Editor.