In 1964, the average income was $5,880. Minimum wage was $1.25/hour. You could buy a new home for $20,500, a new Ford Mustang for $2,360, and Congress passed The Civil Rights Act of 1964, creating the EEOC. This year the EEOC will celebrate its 50th birthday. To begin the year, it held an open meeting workshop on January 14 to examine the issue of workplace harassment. Based on the testimony of various panelists, including lawyers who represent employers and counsel for the EEOC, harassment will be an area of focus in 2015.

The EEOC supported its interest in harassment with some statistics, such as the fact that since 2010, more than 25% of all charges included harassment allegations. In 2014, 6,862 charges alleged sexual harassment. More than 4,848 disability discrimination charges and over 9,023 racial discrimination charges included some allegation of harassment. Therefore, expect the EEOC to continue to show an interest in harassment claims and to scrutinize policies and procedures for preventing and addressing such claims.

Here are some helpful pointers and reminders that were discussed at the recent meeting.

  1. Training. The EEOC recommends and expects to see training as a means of preventing harassment and will be favorably impressed if you are able to demonstrate your efforts to train employees. The key elements include: effective, mandatory, and company-wide presentations and workshops offered throughout the year; specific training for supervisors and managers (separate from non-managers since responsibilities vary depending on position); and diligent record-keeping of attendance.
  2. Policy. Prevention starts with your policy. Your anti-harassment policy should provide detailed instruction on how to report a complaint. It should identify specific individuals to receive complaints. It is also helpful to issue statements that complaints will be investigated promptly and the company will not retaliate against anyone for lodging a complaint. Likewise, you should include a statement that you retain the right to discipline or fire employees who knowingly raise false complaints.
  3. Communication. Dissemination of your policy is important. Post it electronically if possible. Post it on bulletin boards in each of your facilities. Include your policy in employee handbooks or personnel manuals. Discuss the policy during training sessions and company meetings.
  4. Effective Investigation. Review your investigation process. Train supervisors and managers to identify complaints. Begin investigations promptly. Document complaints, witness statements, and circumstances. Suspend the alleged harasser, with or without pay, and immediately remove any offensive graffiti or material. Consider offering a temporary transfer of either of the parties involved. Identify all potential witnesses and distinguish witnesses with first-hand information from gossip and rumors. Ensure that every manager or supervisor fully understands their role and the importance of that role.

Expect the EEOC to continue to aggressively investigate charges that indicate an element of “systemic barriers to equal opportunity.” One indication of a “systemic” problem, in their view, is the degree to which harassment is prevented and, when present, dealt with. The January 14 meeting emphasized the importance of employers raising the subject of harassment, expressing strong disapproval, developing appropriate investigation processes, imposing sanctions where appropriate, and informing employees of their rights under Title VII. That is what the EEOC will be looking for.

If you have not recently reviewed and updated your policies, training, and investigation procedure, now would be a good time to do so. Don’t let the EEOC celebrate its 50th birthday by listing your company as one of its “accomplishments” of 2015.