Workplace Answers

Harassment Prevention & EEOC

 

Record number of EEOC filings

 

Workplace harassment prevention training has never been as important as it is now. According to the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) web site “The EEOC received a record 99,947 charges of discrimination in fiscal year 2011, the highest number of charges in the agency’s 46 year history.” The web site goes on to say the EEOC “achieved the highest ever monetary amounts through administrative enforcement, and received a record number of charges of discrimination.”

 

With enforcement so high, employers are looking for ways to avoid harassment claims and settlements more than ever.

The EEOC suggests workplace harassment prevention training as the best way to eliminate harassment from the workplace.

Harassment prevention messages shared not only via workplace harassment prevention training, but also directly from the leadership of the organization. Employers are encouraged to make it known harassment is not welcome in the workplace. This message can, and should, be conveyed via verbal warnings at staff meetings, one-on-one meetings with employees, posters in shared spaces and in employee handbooks. Establishing a clear grievance process if an employee feels harassed is also key to prevent discrimination and harassment charges by the EEOC.

 

The EEOC also notes that “if the supervisor's harassment results in a hostile work environment, the employer can avoid liability only if it can prove that: 1) it reasonably tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior; and 2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.” The above quote should make it clear that in most cases the employer will be held liable for hostile work environments, despite harassment prevention efforts.

 

Making workplace harassment prevention training a priority in the workplace is non-negotiable. The EEOC wants to make it clear that harassment in the workplace will not be tolerated and employers will be held liable if an employee is found to be working in a hostile environment.

 

Protected Categories

An important key in harassment prevention in the workplace is staying aware of the protected classes, both federally and state-wide. Protected classes are characteristics a person has that cannot be the reason for discrimination or harassment. The federal protected classes are race, color, religion, national origin, age, gender, disability, genetic information and veteran status. In addition, many states have categories that are protected in the state. For example, in North Carolina sexual orientation is also a protected class, making it illegal to harass or discriminate against someone because of their sexual orientation. Sometimes cities and counties pass laws to protect additional classes of people, and the human resources managers would need to keep track of these local laws as well as the federal and state protections. All of these protected classes should be included in the organization’s harassment prevention policy.

 

States are often passing laws to protect a new category of people. As an example, in 2011 an organization’s harassment prevention plan in Massachusetts would not have needed to name gender identity as a protected class. So if an employee in Massachusetts filed a claim that he or she was being harassed because of being transgendered in 2011, technically that would not have been illegal (though of course, immoral!). However, as of July 1, 2012, Massachusetts will consider gender identity a protected class. So any workplace harassment prevention training plan would need to list this category as protected and the human resources managers would need to make sure the employees were educated on this topic.

 

As with all employment law, protected classes are added frequently and it can be difficult to keep up who is covered on what when training on harassment prevention. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is not likely to give an organization a “get out of jail free card” just because an employee’s harassment claim falls under a new protected class. To be as proactive in workplace harassment prevention training as possible, an organization must make sure their human resources managers are educated on all protected categories, new or old.

 

Learn more about workplace harassment prevention training.

 

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