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EEOC’s New Civility Training Shows How Thin The Line Really Is

Workplace harassment has dominated the headlines of late. NAVEX Global Vice President Ingrid Fredeen discusses the importance of culture and training, and how incivility has been described as “the gateway drug” to harassment in the workplace.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently announced a new training program on “respectful workplaces.” “Respect” is not being elevated to the same status as race, sexual orientation and gender in antidiscrimination law; however, after years of study, the EEOC has determined that incivility and disrespect are often the precursors to these more serious harassment and discrimination claims.

Incivility is “the gateway drug to workplace harassment,” in the words of EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum. It’s the warning sign for supervisors and executives that not every employee shares the organization’s professed values of inclusion, respect and diversity. When left unchecked, these disparities can quickly devolve into the type of behavior that generates a lawsuit or regulatory action. This is not a trivial concern: The EEOC received more than 30,000 workplace harassment complaints in 2015 and recovered $164.5 million for workers. These numbers come with the estimation that only 25 percent of victims actually file a complaint.

Social media has given voice to victims in new and very powerful ways. It gives victims the ability to control how their story is told and to spur organizations to act when inaction may be their preferred path. The Carolina Panthers learned this the hard way recently when sportswriter Jourdan Rodrigue asked Panthers Quarterback Cam Newton a question about the routes, or patterns, run by one of his receivers. The quarterback chuckled and said, “it’s funny to hear a female talk about routes” prompting Rodrigue to complain on Twitter about Newton’s disrespectful behavior in front of her colleagues.

Newton has since apologized, but the damage was done. An NFL spokesman called Newton’s remarks “just plain wrong and disrespectful” and at least one sponsor stopped using Newton to promote its products. The episode was a powerful teaching moment for anyone who needs to understand the motivations behind the EEOC’s new civility training program, however. Newton thought he was making an offhand comment, but in reality, it was the type of comment that can cause a female reporter in a male-dominated profession to feel ostracized, excluded and denigrated. Imagine if he had been her supervisor. This is not an isolated incident, but rather a widespread problem in workplaces of all sizes and industries.

To maintain a civil workplace, employers must grapple on a continuum of behavior and calibrated management responses, spanning from non-confrontational discussions to outright dismissal. It can be much harder than training employees to adhere to specific regulations. When it comes to employee interactions, you must accept the fact that people come from a variety of backgrounds and some may hold beliefs that conflict with the organization’s cultural values.

Effective training is the starting point, but it can’t be a check-the-box exercise. It’s just one component of a holistic program to build a workplace culture of respect and tolerance. As NAVEX Global’s 2017 Ethics and Compliance Training Benchmark Report shows, learner fatigue and cynicism can blunt training programs if they aren’t carefully tailored for specific work groups and risk levels. We expect workplace training to fix the problem, and when it doesn’t work, we say it has failed.

Your training program must not focus on what’s legal and what’s not; rather, it must at its core be about respecting the people in your workplace. Employees should be taught to speak up for others and show respect for people who may not have the same beliefs. Don’t start with the goal of preventing specific violations of Title VII anti-discrimination law, in other words. But just like the old saying about talking politics at dinner parties, employees should think twice about making divisive comments or actions at work.

Employees should be aware that management will listen and respond to complaints when discussion strays into belittling or disrespect. A civil organizational culture is one where employees understand that everyone has the right to go to work and not be barraged by certain types of comments or stereotypes. If disrespectful speech is not tolerated by anyone (that includes employees and managers), it’s not going to appear as often.

These can be difficult conversations, and every HR professional knows it. The target of a complaint doesn’t understand why they were singled out. Your response should be “let’s talk about it.” Help them understand why their comment might not have been appropriate. You have the ability to change behavior if you communicate from a standpoint of values, not rules.

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Meritor Savings v. Vinson in 1986, employers have been on notice that simply tolerating a hostile workplace can expose them to expensive discrimination lawsuits. The goal of civility training is to stop that kind of behavior before it becomes illegal.


Ingrid Fredeen

Ingrid Fredeen, J.D., Vice President, Online Learning Content, has been specializing in ethics and legal compliance training for more than ten years. She has been the principal design and content developer for NAVEX Global’s online training course initiatives utilizing her more than 15 years of specialization in employment law and legal compliance. Prior to joining NAVEX Global, Ingrid worked both as a litigator with Littler Mendelson, the world’s largest employment law firm, and as in-house corporate counsel for General Mills, Inc. a premier Fortune 500 food manufacturing company.

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