EEOC Commissioner: Bystander Training Is Key to Respectful Workplace

EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum discussed a new report on preventing harassment in the workplace, with Psychology Prof. Meg Bond. Image by John Wren
EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum talks about a new task force report on workplace harassment at the first annual Women's Leadership Conference.

By Katharine Webster

Workplace harassment remains a persistent problem 30 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it violates federal civil rights laws, Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner Chai Feldblum told participants in the university’s first annual Women’s Leadership Conference.

“The most conservative estimate is that one in four women experience sexual harassment in the workplace, but more likely the number is 40 percent, or 60 percent if you include disturbing language and crude comments,” she said.

Feldblum, a Democrat, spoke at the conference the day after she and fellow EEOC Commissioner Victoria Lipnic, a Republican, released a report in Washington with help from a task force that included psychology Prof. Meg Bond, director of the university’s Center for Women and Work and an expert on workplace harassment.

The report recommends employers try civility training to model respectful behavior and cultivate a sense of shared responsibility for a positive work environment. Better yet, they should conduct bystander intervention training. Bystander intervention, which is increasingly used by colleges to reduce sexual assaults by changing the campus culture, could likewise change workplace culture, Feldman said.

The EEOC receives some 30,000 complaints each year alleging workplace harassment: About half involve sexual harassment and discrimination, while the rest are based on race, ethnicity, religion, age or disability. Yet at least three-quarters of those who suffer harassment never report it to their employers or the EEOC, Feldblum said.

“The main reason they don’t complain is fear – fear of being disbelieved, fear of being retaliated against both professionally and socially, fear of being ostracized,” she said. “And the research shows that’s true. The most reasonable response for workers in some places is to not respond, not to report. They either avoid the harasser, downplay the gravity of the situation, or endure it.”

Feldblum said that first, workplaces need strong policies against harassment, a clear reporting system, and accountability that starts at the top and involves middle management. But that’s not enough, she said. 

That’s partly because standard workplace harassment training focuses on compliance with the law and includes long lists of “don’ts.” Most employees tune it out because they don’t engage in illegal behavior, so they think it doesn’t apply to them. Employers get a better response when they talk about positive steps everyone can take.

“When you tell bystanders how to recognize unacceptable behavior, it not only creates a sense of collective responsibility, but also empowers them by giving them the skills and the confidence to intervene,” she said.

Bond said she served on the task force along with company and plaintiffs’ lawyers, representatives of unions and nonprofits, and other academics. Too often, she said, lawyers, companies and even unions focus on avoiding litigation instead of preventing harassment in the first place. 

“A lot of awful things can happen that don’t rise to the high legal standard a victim must meet in order to sustain an EEOC complaint and win the right to sue,” she said.

“My contribution was to emphasize the value of prevention and intervening in ways that really change the workplace,” she said. “We need to move beyond a legalistic focus on punishment and also define the behaviors we want to promote.”