Within the past year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued specific written Guidance for employers on avoiding harassment and retaliation claims. The EEOC reviewed employer efforts to train employees and managers and concluded that most training programs still fall short in making sure workplaces are free of unlawful discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

Moreover, the EEOC reported that 70 percent of victims still do not report harassment. The most likely offenders are workplaces that are mostly homogenous. So, what do employers need to do to "tune up" their harassment prevention programs? This article lists seven key aspects of a state-of-the art, effective harassment prevention program.

1.Top-down commitment to compliance with policy

Upper management must commit to supporting and promoting the organization's programs for maintaining a workplace that is free of discrimination, harassment and retaliation. In other words, managers must "walk the walk," not just "talk the talk."

2. Focus on a culture of civility and respect

The EEOC and other experts recommend that employers focus on creating a culture of civility and respect, rather than one that is simply intended to maintain a minimum level of legal compliance. With such a culture of civility and respect, employers will likely avoid claims where an employee "perceives" there is unlawful discrimination, harassment or retaliation.

Moreover, maintaining such an engaging culture will help employers avoid becoming "test cases" for whether sexual orientation or gender expression is actually protected category in a particular state or under Title VII.

3. Written policies

Well-written, current policies are the cornerstone of any harassment prevention program. The EEOC stresses that policies must be written in "plain language" with "practical guidance" and lots of real world examples.

Policies must contain a "clear explanation" of consequences of violating the policy. Policies must specifically include anti-retaliation provisions and make it clear the "bystander intervention" (reporting by witnesses, not just victims) is encouraged.

4. Specific written reporting procedure

A well-defined, specific step-by-step procedure for expressing concerns or complaints is critical. The procedure needs to be communicated to employees by posting on physical and electronic bulletin boards, in orientation and training sessions and periodically in meetings of all sorts.

Employees need to know their concerns will be heard quickly and through a consistently-followed process.

5. Train everyone

Every employee and manager in the organization should be trained about the employer's commitment to maintaining a workplace full of respect and civility — free of discrimination, harassment and retaliation with absolute compliance with the written policy and an understanding of the consequences of violating the policy and of the processes for expressing concerns without fear of retaliation.

Training can be tailored to the different levels within the organization: extensive training for HR professionals and top management; situational training at the lowest level of supervision (i.e., the "first responders") and basic training for all other employees. The training should be specifically designed to improve any local deficits in knowledge. Active training that is explicit and interactive is preferred to just lecturing.

6. Investigation and response plans

As much as 100 percent compliance is the goal, claims of harassment or discrimination are probably inevitable. Employers need to have a sense of urgency in dealing with the inevitable claims and to have a contingency plan that springs into action upon receipt of employee complaints. The plan may involve outside consultants or employment law professionals as investigators or advisors.

Once a thorough investigation is completed, an appropriate remedial plan needs to be implemented to address the alleged misconduct and to restore the proper workplace environment. Of course, appropriate documentation at each step in this process is also essential.

7. Internal assessment and review of compliance

As the EEOC's research and guidance shows, many employers still have a long way to go toward creating the best working environment for employees. Part of the continuous improvement process is to review and assess current initiatives on a regular and recurring basis and to improve them where they are deficient.


This article outlines seven parts of an effective harassment and discrimination prevention program. Employers who integrate each of these parts into their overall program will have the right culture and more engaged workers. These employers will likely be able to avoid or successfully defend litigation based on claims of discrimination, harassment or retaliation.