In the wake of the #MeToo movement, most employers have become more acutely aware of the risks involved in failing to effectively prevent and respond to claims of workplace harassment. This renewed awareness should cause all employers, large and small, to evaluate their policies, processes and practices in place to prevent harassment and to respond to claims of unlawful harassment. Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued helpful guidelines outlining employer best practices to combat workplace harassment.

In Promising Practices for Preventing Workplace Harassment, the EEOC provides a user-friendly summary of the EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, Report of the Co-Chairs (Chai R. Feldblum & Victoria A. Lipnic, 2016). In that report, the authors identified “core principles” that had proven effective for employer efforts to prevent and respond to workplace harassment. These core principles suggest certain best practices to assist employers in developing and/or revising an anti-harassment strategies, and include the following:

  1. “Leadership and Accountability”: Simply stated, no effort to prevent and effectively address workplace harassment is likely to succeed without the commitment of the organization’s senior leadership team. Human Resource professionals often are the appropriate individuals to lead anti-harassment efforts, but these efforts must not be regarded as “an HR issue.” Senior leaders from across an organization must visibly support such efforts and allocate the resources necessary to maintain an effective prevention strategy.
  2. “Comprehensive and Effective Harassment Policy”: Most employers understand the need to have a harassment policy, but many do not regularly review and revise their policies to ensure they are both legally and practically effective. In addition to maintaining strong and effective policies, employers also must regularly inform employees of them. When assisting clients with a harassment claim It is not uncommon to find that the alleged harasser and/or the alleged victim was last provided a copy of the harassment policy many years earlier at the time of hire, and/or was not provided subsequent revisions to the applicable policies.
  3. Effective and Accessible Harassment Complaint System”: Many employers with strong, current, and seemingly effective harassment policies often fall short when it comes to developing and implementing a reporting and investigation mechanism. It is essential that a complaint system be tailored to the employer’s specific workplace, as this is an area where “canned” or outdated materials can render a process ineffective. To whom the harasser should report, who is to investigate those reports, and how the investigation will be carried out will necessarily vary by organization and, like the harassment policy, these issues are best resolved in consultation with your employment counsel.
  4. “Effective Harassment Training”: Employers should consider annual or bi-annual in-person training. As the EEOC notes, “[l]eadership, accountability, and strong harassment policies and complaint systems are essential components of a successful harassment prevention strategy, but only if employees are aware of them.” Regular training specific to an employer’s unique workplace is vital not only to the prevention of harassment, but also to the effective defense of harassment claims. Your employment counsel often can assist in the efficient preparation and delivery of in-person training for your organization.

We recommend that all employers, regardless of size of operations, take the time to evaluate their current policy and practices to prevent workplace harassment with these core principles in mind.