Sexual and other forms of unlawful harassment continue to be one of the biggest problems in the workplace. Responsible employers (i.e. employers who honestly want to prevent harassment in the workplace) take reasonable steps to prevent harassment, such as employee training, prompt investigations of complaints, and appropriate discipline of harassers. We could debate how many employers fall into the category of “responsible employers” but even responsible employers often fail to do everything that they can reasonably do to prevent harassment.
One reason that employers fail to prevent harassment is that employees fear retaliation, having their complaints trivialized, or being labeled as “disgruntled” if they complain. And these fears are justified. According to a report from the EEOC, one study found that 75% of employees who spoke about mistreatment in the workplace experienced retaliation. For this reason, many employers do not know how prevalent harassment is in the workplace.
Because of this fear of retaliation, employers who rely solely on employee complaints to determine the prevalence of harassment are not doing enough. In fact, a lack of harassment complaints may just signify a large amount of fear of retaliation. Thus, employers must do more, such as using workplace climate surveys, to assess the prevalence of harassment.
Climate surveys are one tactic that the above-mentioned EEOC report recommended. If these surveys are designed well, employees can answer the survey questions anonymously without fear of retaliation. Like with all surveys, the devil is in the details. Employers should retain professionals skilled at developing these types of surveys. The survey should be administered in a way to enhance employees’ confidence that their responses will remain confidential. A poorly designed survey could give a false sense of the workplace climate.
If a well designed survey reveals a problem with harassment, the employer will know that it has to do more to address the problem. The EEOC report contains a lot of helpful advice for employers who need to step up their game on harassment prevention.