You would think by now, with seemingly endless training sessions and awareness-raising programs and strongly worded policies in employee handbooks, that American workplaces would be largely devoid of harassment.
Unfortunately, you would be wrong.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission formed a task force to study workplace harassment 18 months ago. That group’s recently released report shows that the incidence of harassment based on sex, race, disability, age and other factors remain stubbornly high.
Per the report, in 2015, “5,518 charges involving allegations of harassment were resolved in favor of the charging party through the administrative process, resulting in $125.5 million in benefits for employees. Since 2010, employers have paid out $698.7 million to employees alleging harassment through the Commission’s administrative enforcement pre-litigation process alone.”
Making matters worse, the study found “approximately 90 percent of individuals who say they have experienced harassment never take formal action against the harassment.”
This is where we all sigh loudly.
Report co-author and EEOC Commissioner Victoria Lipnic said in an interview: “There have been a lot of resources devoted to this in the workplace for many years, but there is a very high percentage of people who still do not report harassment. Part of that is out of fear — fear they might be retaliated against, that they might lose their job, that no one is going to believe them.”
How has this not been fixed yet? How do we continue to tolerate verbal abuse, sexual advances, crude comments, racism, sexism and all manner of other uncivil nonsense in professional settings? (Or in any settings, for that matter.)
I know some will say this is a bunch of reactionary noise from sensitive workers, the result of a society that’s gotten too politically correct. Those who say that will undoubtedly be the same people who are NOT being harassed on the basis of their gender, race, age, disability, sexual orientation or anything else.
To those people I say, “Step aside and let the grown-ups talk for a moment.”
I think in their push to appear like they’re doing the right thing, companies have turned the issue of harassment into another box that must be checked. They implement policies, offer training that goes largely ignored and then fail to enforce whatever policies exist.
Preventing these behaviors shouldn’t be a burden for a company, it should be a moral imperative.
Consider this one example of a harassment case from the EEOC report.
Laudente Montoya was a mechanic whose supervisor routinely called him and a co-worker “stupid Mexicans” and routinely made other racist comments. Montoya complained to a manager and was ignored. He then filed a charge of discrimination and was laid off.
Per the report: “Mr. Montoya explained, ‘Working that job was one of the worst times in my life. It became so that I could hardly bring myself to go to work in the morning because I hated working with him so much. People were calling me moody. I even saw my doctor about it.’”
The psychological impact that harassment, in its many forms, has on people is significant. And if you don’t give a flip about your fellow human beings, consider that it’s also bad for business.
Outside of costs associated with legal action, workplace harassment hampers productivity, and not just for the victim. The EEOC report cites a study that found “employees, female and male alike, who observed hostility directed toward female co-workers (both incivility and sexually harassing behavior) were more likely to experience lower psychological well-being.”
This isn’t rocket science. And yet, the behavior persists.
EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum, the other author of the study, said: “I do not think the trajectory is showing something good at the moment. The number of charges coming in show us that if something different doesn’t happen, we’re not going to get better. It will take a focused, intentional, strategic effort to convince employers that it’s worth it to them to make changes.”
To that end, the report — which can be found here — details steps companies can take to make sure harassment is not deemed acceptable.
The key, as always, is for a company’s leaders to make it clear that civility is a priority and incivility does not go unpunished.
The report notes: “If weak sanctions are imposed for bad behavior, employees learn that harassment is tolerated, regardless of the messages, money, time, and resources spent to the contrary.”
It also helps to show that policing incivility is not only encouraged but expected.
“Don’t focus only on the legal liability,” Feldblum said. “See if you can create an atmosphere in your workplace where people feel a corrective responsibility for making sure that harassment doesn’t happen.”
What this and many of the report’s other suggestions require is a bit of — BUZZWORD ALERT! — authenticity. Harassment and uncivil behavior at work can’t be just another thing managers have to deal with, blah blah blah.
You can train people until your training budget is busted, but it won’t do an ounce of good if workers don’t believe their bosses actually care.
So care about this, for Pete’s sake. For many, harassment isn’t some trifling nuisance. It’s a painful, damaging problem. And if you run a company or manage people — or if you work alongside people who harass others — you should want to see that behavior halted in its tracks.
It’s not a matter of being politically correct. It’s a matter of being a decent human being.
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Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.