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The recent media spotlight on sexual harassment in the workplace has employers on edge.  Employers are responsible for providing their employees with a work environment that does not discriminate and is free of harassment.  When faced with an allegation of harassment, employers often question whether they did enough to prevent the harassment.  Unfortunately, by the time that question arises, the answer may already be no.

Preventing harassment is as important as stopping harassment in the workplace.  Recognizing this, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued “Promising Practices for Preventing Harassment,” a guidance document that features harassment prevention recommendations for employers.  Although these practices are not legal requirements under federal employment discrimination laws, they may enhance employers’ compliance efforts.

The Report of the Co-Chairs of EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace identified five core principles that have generally proven effective in preventing and addressing harassment:

  • Committed and engaged leadership;
  • Consistent and demonstrated accountability;
  • Strong and comprehensive harassment policies;
  • Trusted and accessible complaint procedures; and
  • Regular, interactive training tailored to the audience and the organization.

Stressing that the cornerstone of a successful harassment prevention strategy is the consistent and demonstrated commitment of senior leaders to create and maintain a culture in which harassment is not tolerated, the EEOC highlights the importance of allocating sufficient resources for effective harassment prevention strategies; providing appropriate authority to individuals responsible for creating, implementing, and managing harassment prevention strategies; and allocating sufficient staff time for harassment prevention efforts.  The EEOC also recognizes the importance of a comprehensive, clear harassment policy that is regularly communicated to all employees which includes, for example, a description of the organization’s harassment complaint system, including multiple (if possible), easily accessible reporting avenues.

To help prevent conduct from rising to the level of unlawful workplace harassment, employers also may find it helpful to consider and implement new forms of training, such as workplace civility or respectful workplace training and/or bystander intervention training.  Harassment reporting procedures should not only protect the privacy of alleged victims, individuals who report harassment, witnesses, alleged harassers, and other relevant individuals to the greatest extent possible, but should also include processes to ensure that alleged harassers are not prematurely presumed guilty or prematurely disciplined for harassment without a prompt thorough and neutral investigation.   To read the EEOC’s guidance document in its entirety, click here.

The fact is, the burden of preventing harassment in the workplace is on the employer.  One of the most important takeaways from the EEOC’s detailed guidance is that simply having a harassment policy in place is not enough.  Employers must be proactive and take the necessary preventive measures to cultivate and ensure a work environment that is free from any form of harassment.