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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is likely to redouble its policing of workplace harassment, agency heads announced at a recent meeting in January to lay out the EEOC’s 2015 agenda.

According to EEOC chairwoman Jenny Yang, “We are developing strategies that focus on targeted outreach and education as well as systemic enforcement to promote broader voluntary compliance.”

That means that employers can expect mounting scrutiny in this area if an employee files a complaint with the agency.

The EEOC supported its interest in harassment because more than 30% of all charges it makes include harassment allegations. In 2014, 6,862 charges alleged sexual harassment, while 4,848 disability discrimination charges and 9,023 racial discrimination charges included some allegation of harassment.

During the EEOC’s meeting, the following recommendations for the employer community were aired:

 

Focus on training – The EEOC recommends and expects employers to provide harassment prevention training to employees. You can impress the agency if you can show that you are providing such training. Key elements of training include:

  • Effective, mandatory and company-wide presentations and workshops offered throughout the year;
  • Specific training for supervisors and managers (separate from non-managers as responsibilities vary depending on position); and
  • Diligent record-keeping of attendance.

 

Sound prevention policy – Prevention starts with a sound anti-harassment policy. Your policy should include detailed instruction on how to report a complaint and identify with whom you can file the complaint in your organization.

The EEOC also recommends that you 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.

 

 Communication  – Make sure that you properly communicate your policy, that it reaches everyone in your organization, and that they understand the importance of the policy. Post it electronically if possible, and on bulletin boards in areas frequented by your staff.

Also, don’t forget to include your policy in your employee handbook, and discuss the policy during training sessions and company meetings.

 

Effective investigation – Take a look at your investigation process. You should train your supervisors and managers in how to identify complaints. Once you’ve received a complaint, you should investigate promptly. Document complaints, witness statements and circumstances.

The EEOC recommends that you suspend the accused harasser, with or without pay, and immediately remove any offensive graffiti or material. Another option is to offer, if possible, a temporary transfer of either of the parties involved.

Identify and question all potential witnesses and make a note of those who were actual witnesses to the alleged harassment as opposed to those who just heard about it through others.

One of the EEOC’s biggest focuses will be if there are systemic issues that indicate a lackadaisical attitude about workplace harassment.

The January 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.

 

The takeaway

With the EEOC continuing to step up harassment investigations and charges, you need to review and, if needed, update your policies, training and investigative procedures to jibe with the agency’s expectations of an exemplary employer.

And remember, having a policy is insufficient if it is not communicated understandably to your workers. For example, in a workforce that includes many teens, the policy should be understandable to the average high school student.

Finally, it would be wise to secure employment practices liability insurance, which will usually cover costs associated with being sued or charged by the EEOC. We can help. Give Wright & Kimbrough a call! or go to contact us.

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