Supervisors and employees alike sometimes need a reminder of basic childhood etiquette: share; play nice; say, “thank you.” Conventional anti-harassment and anti-discrimination workplace trainings cover legal definitions and responsibilities, but do little in the way of encouraging civility or actually avoiding lawsuits.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is hoping to change that by offering trainings promoting a more courteous work environment. On October 4, 2017, the EEOC announced that it is offering two new trainings for employers: Leading for Respect (for supervisors) and Respect in the Workplace (for all employees).

By way of background, in 1986, the Supreme Court formally recognized what the lower courts and the EEOC had been contending for nearly a decade: sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Despite this longstanding precedent, EEOC Commissioners continue to hear a voluminous docket of sexual harassment and other types of harassment complaints. In fact, in fiscal year 2015, nearly 33% of the charges filed with the EEOC – approximately 29,700 – included charges of unlawful harassment.

In 2016, Co-Chairs Chai R. Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic drafted a report to address the disconnect between employees/supervisors understanding the unlawfulness of harassment and the continual prevalence of harassment in the workplace. In their report entitled, “Report of the Co-Chairs of the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace,” the Co-Chairs propose methods that the EEOC could implement to help prevent workplace harassment.

The report contains one significant caveat: “we caution that our agency is only one piece of the solution. Everyone in society must feel a stake in this effort. That is the only way we will achieve the goal of reducing the level of harassment in our workplaces to the lowest level possible.” In other words, laws and federal enforcement are only a component of the solution to ending workplace harassment. What really needs change is workplace culture.

The report concludes that the last 30 years of anti-harassment training focusing on how to avoid legal liability has failed as a prevention tool. The report finds that even the most effective training requires “a holistic culture of non-harassment that starts at the top.” It then proposes new types of training, including “workplace civility training” that focuses “on promoting respect and civility in the workplace generally.”

The EEOC is now offering two new, customizable civility trainings that will be conducted by the EEOC Training Institute staff. The EEOC recognizes that this type of training is critical, but only one piece of the equation. Supervisors and employees need the skills to promote a civil workplace culture, but they also must be committed to implementing a respectful work environment.

It is unfortunate that mutual respect is not an inherent part of a typical workplace, or politics, or [fill in the blank].

What the EEOC is trying to say is that we need to go back to the basics. Back to the humanity of the playground when you first learned that teasing and bullying were bad and rightfully punishable. That is not to say that employers should now regulate all potential conflict. In fact, in 2014, the National Labor Relations Board found that an employee handbook that prohibited engaging in negative comments about coworkers and required employees to represent the company in a “positive and professional manner” was too broad and violated Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.

Rather than training your employees on how to avoid lawsuits or forcing them to say nice things to one another, businesses should be focused on implementing a respectful work culture. If civility becomes engrained in your workplace and allegations of harassment are immediately addressed, avoiding legal liability won’t need to be the focal point of your workplace training.

Are you interested in anti-harassment training? Contact MBA today.