Expert Panelists Testify Before EEOC on “Revamping Workplace Culture to Prevent Harassment”

shutterstock_me tooOn October 31, 2018, roughly one year after the beginning of the #MeToo movement, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) held a public meeting at agency headquarters in Washington, D.C. entitled “Revamping Workplace Culture to Prevent Harassment.”  The purpose of this meeting was to hear various approaches that different industries are implementing to prevent harassment and provide employers the skills, resources, and knowledge to respond workplace harassment.

Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic began the meeting by noting that the nation is at the apex of a cultural awakening that the EEOC has been tracking for years.  Since the #MeToo movement went viral, hits on the EEOC website have doubled.  Furthermore, the EEOC’s fiscal year 2018 data, which was recently released, shows that sexual harassment charges have increased 13.6% from FY 2017 data and sexual harassment lawsuits brought by the EEOC have increased by 50%.  Therefore, there is a need to prioritize workplace harassment and preventive measures.

The discourse throughout the meeting focused on three main topics that the Commission and industry believe will help prevent and address workplace harassment:

  1. Workplace culture
  2. Leadership and accountability; and
  3. Training

The Commissioners’ opening statements highlighted these three topics – noting that there have been significant gaps in those areas in recent years.  The panelist emphasized the importance of implementing programs on these topics and ensuring that efforts to prevent workplace harassment are supported throughout the company from top to bottom – i.e. front-line employees, supervisors, CEOs, and even members sitting on a Board of Directors.

Panelist Emphasize Importance of Workplace Culture and Accountability

The panelists’ testimony focused specifically on ways in which employers can take steps to change their workplace culture to prevent harassment and act appropriately when instances of harassment do occur.  They emphasized the need for a holistic approach to address workplace harassment that will be unique to each workplace.

Alejandra Valles, the Secretary-Treasurer of the SEUI United Service Workers West, and Veronica Giron, a janitor and leader of the Ya Basta Campaign, discussed a novel training program developed by janitors in California that has helped reshape the culture in the janitorial industry.  The training focuses on prevention as a goal and uses liability as a deterrent.  The curriculum-based training program and video documentary developed by janitors helps janitorial employees and supervisors understand what is expected in the workplace and, more importantly, what is not tolerated and how to react to harassment.

David G. Bowman, a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius testified that employers should implement a multi-faceted campaign that focuses on leaders setting the right tone, holding employees accountable, and creating different training platforms that motivate employees to create a more positive workplace environment.  He urged employers to inform employees that the stakes are high and the consequences severe.  Wrongdoers often focus on the risk of getting caught as opposed to the consequences.  If the consequences are severe and it is understood by employees, they will be deterred from engaging in harassing conduct.

Anne Wallestad, president and CEO of BoardSource, focused on how board leadership plays a pivotal role in shaping the workplace even though they are removed from the work environment.  Wallestad noted that board complicity and ineffective oversight of its CEO are areas that can be addressed to hold leadership and employees accountable.  Wallestad explained that boards cannot simply focus on profits, losses, and the CEO’s leadership. Rather, a board needs to proactively examine their organization’s culture and hold the CEO accountable for the workplace environment.  She explained that boards of directors should solicit 360 feedback from employees about the CEO and leadership and create a whistle blower policy that permits employees to complain directly to the Board.  This will allow a board of directors to better understand the workplace environment, fully evaluate a CEO’s leadership and performance, and proactively address any workplace concerns.

Rob Buelow, Vice President of EVERFI – an education technology platform – further highlighted the importance of a prevention-based approach to address workplace harassment.  Mr. Buelow focused on providing an action-oriented message through web-based training that serves as a complement to live training.  Mr. Buelow explained that the training curriculum needs to be changed more now than ever, and employers must change the training narrative.  Instead of focusing on what is illegal, employers should focus on an organization’s values, culture, and what is expected of employees.  By encouraging employees to make decisions that are aligned with those values and reinforcing positive behaviors, employers will ultimately strengthen the workplace environment.

The panel also included two professors who provided insights into the benefits of civility training and teaching individuals to act on their values.  Christine Porath of Georgetown University discussed the benefits of workplace civility training which helps foster respect amongst employees.  When leaders are civil and kind to their employees, it ultimately increases employee satisfaction and performance.  Furthermore, Mary Gentile of University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business discussed the Giving Voice to Values curriculum.  This is an innovative approach to values-driven leadership development that focuses on ethical implementation.  The primary purpose of the program is to re-wire the unconscious process that prevents people from acting appropriately when they see improper behaviors.  It forces leaders to think first about how to act on their values, and then follow through with that decision.

Best Practices for Employers

The takeaway from the panelists is that employers should emphasize their workplace culture and take steps to stop harassment before it starts.   A positive workplace culture must be embraced and nurtured at every level in a business.  By creating a positive workplace culture, employers empower and encourage employees to thrive in the workplace.

However, it is important to remember that there is no one size fits all approach to changing workplace culture and eliminating workplace harassment.  Employers should consider adopting a holistic approach by reviewing leadership and management performance, employee satisfaction, and workplace policies and procedures.  In addition to fostering a positive workplace culture, it is important to have strong leadership that employees will follow and effective policies, procedures, and training.  Finally, employers should create a mechanism to hold employees accountable for actions that deviate from those policies.  Employer should emphasize the negative and potentially severe consequences for violating company policies and consistently discipline employees for violating those policies.

If you have questions or need assistance handling these complex workplace issues or developing strong anti-harassment policies and related training, please contact one of the attorneys in Conn Maciel Carey’s Labor and Employment Group.

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