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Meeting of October 31, 2018 - Revamping Workplace Culture to Prevent Harassment

Written Testimony of Rob Buelow, Vice-President, EVERFI

Good morning, Chair Lipnic and Commissioners Feldblum and Burrow. Thank you for the opportunity to share my perspectives on harassment prevention before the Commission. The groundbreaking efforts of the EEOC's Select Task Force have been so influential to our collective work, and I am deeply grateful for your continued leadership in this space.

Over my career as a public health professional, I have engaged in research, consulting, and prevention education on issues of health, well-being, and equity, with a specific focus on gender-based violence. My organization, EVERFI, is a leading provider of online education that addresses some of the most pressing challenges facing our nation's K-12 schools, higher education institutions, and corporations - issues like financial literacy, alcohol and prescription drug abuse prevention, diversity, equity and inclusion, mental wellness, and sexual assault prevention. We partner with over 3,000 companies and campuses to address workplace harassment and discrimination and reach nearly 2 million employees each year through these efforts.

In introducing myself as a public health professional, I recognize that people are often unclear about what public health is. Whereas the field of medicine is about treating individuals after they've gotten sick or injured, public health is about preventing populations from getting sick or injured to begin with.

The public health model details three levels of prevention, all of which can be applied to address workplace issues like harassment and discrimination:

  • Primary prevention strategies are focused on addressing root causes and deterring the onset of risky or harmful behaviors.
  • Secondary prevention strategies are focused on reducing exposure to and effectively responding in risky or harmful situations.
  • Tertiary prevention strategies are focused on mitigating the impact of harmful behavior after it has occurred and preventing future recurrence.

Too often, workplace harassment initiatives focus on how to define and respond to illegal behavior--i.e., secondary or tertiary prevention--versus how to keep incidents from happening in the first place. All of these facets are important for a well-rounded prevention strategy, but organizations should be actively shifting the balance to prioritize primary prevention (or stopping concerning behavior before individuals are harmed).

As public health initiatives seek to maximize the well-being of individuals and groups, the tone of these approaches must reflect the positive outcomes an organization is trying to achieve, rather than negative consequences to be avoided. Taking such a values-based, proactive primary prevention approach turns the traditional legal compliance-based harassment training model on its head. Rather than solely messaging to employees about what constitutes illegal behaviors, effective trainings will flip the narrative and focus on the organization's values and culture, encouraging employees to make decisions that are aligned with those values and reinforcing how positive behavior supports positive culture. Research has indicated that using this type of positive, values-based approach can be far more effective in shaping behavior than a consequence-avoidance focus.

For example, telling employees "Don't do [some action], that violates our policy" places focus on what not to do - behaviors that are often only perpetuated by a small subset of employees. Rather, it is much more effective to say "Our organization is a great place to work. We respect and support each other so that we can all do our very best work every day. Here's how we do it." This action-oriented message engages and empowers all employees to create and maintain a safe and respectful workplace culture.

Messages like this are consistent with EVERFI data showing that most people want to have healthy relationships -- with coworkers, friends, classmates, and family. Thus, the healthy majority of our employees should be engaged as part of the solution versus part of the problem. This concept is central to the evidence-based approach of bystander intervention that the EEOC Select Task Force report recommended and that holds such promise in building healthy workplace cultures.

Many in the audience may be familiar with the widely recognized "see something, say something" message. But it is a very simplified notion of what constitutes bystander intervention. Social science researchers in the 1970s articulated a rich framework on the cognitive processes a person goes through when deciding whether or not to intervene in a situation: 1) Notice the situation; 2) Identify the situation as warranting intervention, 3) Feel they have the tools, support, and personal responsibility to intervene; 4) Choose to take action; and 5) Intervene safely and effectively. Each phase of this process presents barriers that must be addressed in training programs.

Many people are able to identify situations of blatant harassment, but do not often recognize some of the less egregious, precursor behaviors that lead to those situations. Good bystander intervention training will present a range of inappropriate, harmful, or illegal behaviors and encourage employees to take action across this spectrum of concerning activity.

Some employees will be comfortable with direct intervention approaches while others may prefer creating distractions or delegating responsibility. Good bystander intervention training will provide many different options for taking action that align not only with the unique styles and strengths of learners, but also varying environmental factors, such as the setting of the incident, the organizational roles of the individuals involved, etc.

Simply encouraging employees to intervene is not enough to get them to do it; they need to know that taking some action is socially acceptable and encouraged. Many people who want to step in to prevent harm are unaware that others feel the same way and will support them. Good bystander intervention training must be accompanied by messages that help individuals overcome this misperception.

While in-person training programs have historically been utilized to address workplace harassment, organizations are increasingly using online trainings to complement or replace these more traditional approaches. Online training programs have the ability to easily and efficiently reach all employees with critical information in a standardized, trackable way. These programs can serve to elevate employees' foundation of awareness, attitudes, and skills, providing a heightened baseline that can prepare them to engage more deeply in subsequent trainings.

When online training programs include surveys and assessments, employee responses can provide rich data insights on organizational culture and climate. These insights can be used to better align subsequent training initiatives and messages with the issues that will be most impactful for that organization.

There are also several areas where online training provides unique advantages that can be difficult or unrealistic to achieve via in-person programming. These fall into the categories of compliance, content, design, administration, and data.

For trainings to be compliant, course material must be aligned with local, state, and federal laws and regulations. Online education provides an easy way to not only ensure that all legally-required content is presented to all learners, but also to create a record demonstrating the same. As laws continue to shift and evolve, it can be challenging to ensure that trainings remain compliant---particularly when such laws differ by state or municipality. A good technology partner will have an expert legal team in place to monitor the regulatory landscape and keep trainings up to date with current laws and regulations, as well as the ability to customize training to ensure employees in different jurisdictions are receiving content that reflects local rules. That said, compliance is the floor and not the ceiling. Doing what is required does not translate to doing the best work possible. When organizations commit to best practice, however, compliance is going to be a natural step in that process.

The content of effective trainings must incorporate research, theory, and known best practices to maximize impact. Just as trainings must reflect changes in legal requirements, they must also evolve as new research emerges. Given that the quality of training is dependent on the quality of the trainer, a good technology partner will have a team in place that has deep expertise and experience in harassment and discrimination prevention to support content development. Deploying a standardized, evidence-informed online curriculum ensures fidelity in the training that can be difficult to achieve at scale with in-person trainers who may vary in approach and expertise.

To maximize impact, prevention trainings also must be designed to meet employees where they are. This degree of personalization can be difficult to achieve via in-person training, especially in large-group settings. Online training can provide an adaptive learning experience that is tailored to the interests, experiences, and perspectives of individual employees. If one of the goals of training is to make employees more attuned to what is going on around them and able to recognize (and hopefully stop) concerning behavior, it is important to use language, images, and scenarios that feel relevant and realistic to them. This can include personalized feedback to training questions, customized content based on certain employee characteristics (e.g., culturally-appropriate content based on geographic location), and unique pathways to progress through skill-building scenarios.

Similarly, by design, online training can be completed in private and at an individual's own pace. Because harassment and discrimination prevention training requires discussion of sensitive topics, reflections about personal values, and practicing new skills, some employees may feel uncomfortable doing this work in an in-person, group setting. Lastly, good online training will be both interactive (e.g., using multiple modalities to deliver content) and inclusive (e.g., diverse representation, accessible training experience), and can be built in a way that compels employees to pay attention and engage with the material.

As a prevention educator, I know how hard it can be to administer a training that meaningfully reaches and teaches large numbers of employees. Online courses allow organizations to scalably address training priorities and compliance requirements--particularly if your workforce is dispersed or in locations that make in-person training difficult (e.g., construction sites, warehouses, retail stores, home offices, etc.). Many online trainings have built-in tracking features to monitor and report on participation. A good technology partner will also provide a platform for training administrators to assign courses to individuals or groups of employees, automate deployment at set dates and times, and send email reminders. Customization options can ensure that training aligns with the look and feel of an organization, and integrations with HR systems can create a seamless training experience.

In addition to tracking participation metrics like training progress or policy acknowledgements, online trainings can include surveys and assessments to monitor changes in employees' knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. Embedded pre- and post-surveys are critical to understanding training effectiveness, but the value goes far beyond measuring impact. Well-designed surveys can inform resource allocation and strengthen ongoing prevention initiatives by providing real-time insights on workplace culture and the unique needs and strengths of employees. These insights enable employers, post-training, to implement targeted outreach initiatives to correct misperceptions and communicate organizational policies and values. For example, if employee responses to a training survey indicate a lack of confidence around intervening if they saw a coworker being harassed, the employer could then launch a focused communication campaign to address this gap and encourage actions that protect workplace culture. A good technology partner will also allow training administrators to input custom questions, benchmark against peer groups, and access data dashboards with around institutional climate, learner knowledge and skills, and pre/post training impact.

Absent workplace climate data on employee knowledge, attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors, organizations are unable to truly know how or where to focus training resources. Even the best training programs will be ineffective if they seek to address a problem that an organization doesn't have. Conversely, climate data can shed additional light on challenges an organization is already aware of.

If, for example, HR is made aware that there is widespread harassment within a particular division of the organization but they are not receiving reports, it is important to know whether this is simply the result of lack of awareness of reporting resources or something more complex - like fears of retaliation for reporting harassment. Climate surveys can help uncover these nuances, which have profound impact on strategies and resource allocation.

In addition, well-designed climate surveys can show connections between workplace culture and other mission-critical organizational priorities. Just as climate surveys in higher education have revealed that attitudes and experiences around sexual assault can be detrimental to academic success and retention, they may also help to identify organizational impacts (e.g., performance issues, job satisfaction) that can serve to justify increased investment.

I'd like to conclude by acknowledging that training--whether online or in-person--is just the tip of the iceberg in our efforts to address workplace harassment. To be effective, training must be supported by the other crucial elements of a comprehensive prevention strategy: organization-wide commitment (visible leadership and meaningful investment); robust policies and procedures (that are strongly and consistently enforced); and rigorous intentionality (data collection, goal-setting, and strategic planning).

As we collectively work to maintain momentum in a post-#MeToo world, I'm optimistic that the progress we've made is irreversible. Thank you for allowing me to share my perspective and for the EEOC's ongoing leadership and commitment in revamping workplace culture to prevent harassment.