EEOC weighs in: Most sexual harassment training doesn’t work

Harassment trainingTwo years ago, the EEOC, troubled by the high numbers of sexual harassment complaints it continues to receive, commissioned a study of the problem. In June 2016, the resulting report—Select Task Force Report on Harassment in the Workplace—issued a sobering verdict on the effectiveness of decades of workplace harassment prevention and training efforts.

For the most part, they don’t work.

THE LAW Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination because of sex. In a 1986 decision, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that sexual harassment victims could obtain damages under Title VII.

In two landmark 1998 cases, Faragher v. Boca Raton and Ellerth v. Burlington Industries, the U.S. Supreme Court gave employers a safe harbor from liability if they provided employees with multiple avenues to report harassment and quickly and professionally investigated the complaints. In response, employers have, with mixed results, implemented sexual harassment training to help identify and prevent harassment.

WHAT’S NEW Over the last year, sexual harassment allegations at Fox News, in Silicon Valley and even the U.S. military have grabbed the headlines. Expensive litigation and multimillion dollar payouts to victims have not deterred ongoing harassment.

The EEOC’s 2016 report focused not just on sexual harassment (in-cluding harassment based on sexual orientation, gender identity and pregnancy), but all types of harassment against protected groups—harassment based on race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, age and disability.

The EEOC receives over 30,000 harassment complaints each year, and that may just be the tip of the iceberg. One EEOC-com­­missioned survey found that three out of four employees who experience harassment never complain through their employer’s established channels.

Employers clearly have reason to take effective anti-harassment steps. The report notes the EEOC recovered $164.5 million for harassment victims in 2015. That figure does not include court awards and private settlements. It also does not count litigation costs, nor lost productivity due to lowered workforce morale.

HOW TO COMPLY The report concluded that most anti-harassment training focuses too much on protecting employers from liability and not enough on teaching civility in the workplace. Most importantly, it noted that the training is worthless unless top management buys into and employees trust the employer’s system to address complaints.

The report shows that employers must not only be wise consumers of anti-harassment training, but must view training as part of an overall work­­place culture change that affects everyone in the workplace. Without that buy-in, money spent on training is wasted.

Employees must trust the system

A workplace culture that discourages reporting will foster more harassment. Anecdotal information from Fox News illustrates this.

According to recently filed court documents, Fox senior executive Judith Slater felt free to harass minority employees because she knew all the secrets of former Chairman Roger Ailes and commentator Bill O’Reilly, themselves accused of being serial harassers. Employees were chilled from reporting her behavior.

Ailes and CFO Mark Krantz were fired in 2016, and Slater’s pink slip arrived in February 2017. O’Reilly was driven out in April. All the dirty laundry concerning payouts to harassment victims came out followed by a class-action race discrimination suit citing Slater’s behavior.

Had the culture permitted employees to report harassment, then this somewhat inevitable blood-letting could have occurred earlier at a significantly lower price tag.


No executive can be “too big to fall” when it comes to harassment charges. The rules must apply to everyone, from the custodian to the CEO, or they mean nothing.

No doubt, Fox’s Board weighed the relative costs of losing Ailes, Krantz and O’Reilly against the escalating costs. They may not have had the full picture or understood that buying off plaintiffs only encouraged the bad behavior.

Employers must look beyond the bottom line to design a policy that builds universal accountability in­­­to the system. Doing so involves build­­ing a new workplace culture and trust among all employees that they can tell the truth without being punished.

Effective training

The EEOC report concluded that training focused merely on prevention does not work. Harassment stems from a basic lack of respect for co-workers. Until that is addressed, harassment will not stop.

To combat workplace harassment, the report calls for “bystander intervention” training that teaches workers to intervene when they see harassment. Of course, employees will only intervene if they believe the employer will protect their legitimate actions.

The report concluded that “one size fits all” training is not as effective as training designed specifically for the employer’s particular workplace culture.

Such training may be more expensive in the short run, but ineffective training is money wasted.

Read the EEOC report at