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Compelling Reasons to Reboot Your Training

Harassment prevention training is a critical component of both maintaining a respectful, inclusive workplace and minimizing legal risk. Yet, even though mandatory workplace anti-harassment training is ubiquitous, a recent poll of over 2,500 employees in various industries by the American Psychological Association (APA)[1] indicates that workplace harassment is still a significant issue. This poll revealed that over a quarter (28%) of workers have witnessed negative slights, insults, or jokes that devalued the identity or negated the thoughts and feelings of others based on their identity or background. Nearly one-fifth of those polled (19%) also said that they had been the target of these behaviors. Likewise, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) figures show that over 34% of the charges of discrimination filed with the agency between fiscal years 2018-2022 included an allegation of harassment, and the total number of harassment charges increased in fiscal year 2022.[2]

Moreover, the EEOC recently issued two publications that are instructive on the agency’s enforcement priorities in the upcoming year and its position on workplace harassment issues moving forward. These updated statistics and EEOC publications underscore the need for organizations to reexamine their current harassment prevention training programs to ensure the content targets emerging trends and best positions employers to minimize risk in key areas.

Takeaways from Recent EEOC Publications

Let’s first take a brief look at the two recent EEOC publications that should be considered prior to conducting an audit of current training content. The first of these is the EEOC’s final Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) for Fiscal Years 2024-2028, released on September 21, 2023.[3] In the SEP, the EEOC established the agency’s six subject matter law enforcement priorities for the upcoming four years. The EEOC stated that it has identified two harassment-related national enforcement priorities in the SEP, which are “Preventing and Remedying Systemic Harassment,” and “Protecting Vulnerable Workers and People from Underserved Communities from Harassment.”[4] A third priority listed in the SEP, “Addressing Selected Emerging and Developing Issues,” appears to also apply to the prevention of harassment issues.[5] Moreover, the EEOC stated in this document that, “Harassment, both in-person and  online, remains a serious issue in our nation’s workplaces.”[6] The EEOC’s own press release discussing the SEP emphasizes that one of the major changes in the agency’s strategic priorities is, “targeting discrimination, bias, and hate directed towards religious minorities (including antisemitism and Islamophobia), racial or ethnic groups, and LGBTQI+ individuals.”[7] In addition, the EEOC specifically indicated that it would prioritize issues involving: 1) workers affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions; 2) older workers; and 3) discrimination influenced by or arising as backlash in response to local, national or global events, including discriminatory bias arising as a result of recurring historical prejudices.

The second publication to consider is the EEOC’s Proposed Enforcement Guidance on Harassment (PEG),[8] issued on September 29, 2023, which was open to public comment through November 1, 2023. Keep in mind that even after the guidance is finalized, the PEG is not legally binding, but “intended to communicate the Commission’s position on important legal issues.”[9] While much of the PEG is a good review of familiar concepts, employers should pay heed to references contained therein relating to what constitutes an effective training program, how the EEOC defines sex-based harassment, and off-duty electronic communications.

Next, let’s talk about several suggested ways organizations can refresh or reboot training content to best minimize risk considering these updates.  

Ensure your Organization’s Training Program is Consistent with the EEOC’s Guidelines

In the PEG, the EEOC states that for training to be effective, it should generally have the following features, at a minimum:

  • It explains the employer’s anti-harassment policy and complaint process, including any alternative dispute resolution process, confidentiality and anti-retaliation protections;
  • It contains examples of prohibited harassment, as well as conduct that, if left unchecked, might rise to the level of prohibited harassment;
  • It provides information about employees’ rights if they experience, observe, become aware of, or report conduct that they believe may be prohibited;
  • It provides supervisors and managers information about how to prevent, identify, stop, report, and correct harassment, such as actions that can be taken to minimize the risk of harassment, and clear instructions for addressing and reporting harassment that they observe, that is reported to them, or that they otherwise become aware of;
  • It is tailored to the workplace and workforce;
  • It is provided on a regular basis to all employees; and
  • It is provided in a clear, easy-to-understand style and format.

Tailoring the training to the workplace and workforce is the feature that is often the most difficult to incorporate in an anti-harassment training program, especially if it is “off-the-shelf.” To achieve this objective, training courses should include relatable, industry-specific realistic examples tailored to address any behavioral opportunities for improvement existing in the workforce. The training should also be updated if the workforce has shifted to a home-centric model, to include examples of problematic behaviors during video calls including inappropriate comments, jokes, gestures, and comments in chat dialogue.

A suggested approach to providing examples of conduct that, if left unchecked, might rise to the level of prohibited harassment, is to include unconscious bias training in the harassment prevention training to both employees and supervisors. The supervisor training should also include a detailed discussion of how to identify and immediately “shut down” one-off inappropriate comments and conversations, even those that are “close to the line,” to make clear that any further occurrences of inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated. To be effective, the training should be a “safe space” where supervisors can ask questions and dialogue about how to approach tough situations, such as discerning when an innuendo or subtle comment needs to be addressed and the challenges of bystander intervention when a new supervisor is supervising prior peers.

Broadly Define Sex-Based Harassment in the Training

Some of the notable updates in the PEG revolve around sex-harassment related to pregnancy, childbirth, and gender identity. The PEG states that sex-based harassment can include harassment based on a woman’s reproductive decisions, such as decisions about contraception or abortion. The PEG further states that sex-based harassment includes intentional and repeated use of a name or pronoun inconsistent with an employee’s gender identity (misgendering) or the denial of access to a bathroom or other sex-segregated facility consistent with the individual’s gender identity. Based on this guidance and the agency’s enumerated objectives in the SEP, anti-harassment training should reinforce the concept that employees are expected to treat all co-workers with dignity and respect, which includes honoring a coworkers’ name and pronoun and avoiding discussions with co-workers on highly sensitive personal topics such as reproduction. The training should also emphasize that these behaviors can also be a form of sex-based harassment.

Emphasize the Need for Respect in Dialogue about Current Events

The EEOC stated that it intends to prioritize harassment issues influenced by or arising as backlash in response to local, national or global events, including discriminatory bias arising because of recurring historical prejudices, and bias targeting religious minorities. From a practical standpoint, workplace harassment issues of this nature often arise during workplace discussions on polarizing current events (for example, the current war between Israel and Hamas or the aftermath of the US Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action in college admissions). To minimize risk in this area, harassment training should clearly provide examples of inappropriate behavior based on race, religion, and national origin. The training should also emphasize the employer’s expectations of professional and respectful behavior, emphasize the risk surrounding the discussion of divisive topics in the workplace, and empower employees to decline to participate in and/or deescalate workplace conversations of this nature.

Discuss the Impact of Offensive Personal Electronic Communications

In its PEG, the EEOC takes the stand that offensive off-duty electronic communications relating to protected characteristics, even if not-work related, can contribute to a hostile environment if these communications impact the workplace. Based on this, the training should provide clear examples of the types of off-duty personal messaging and social media posting that can potentially violate the company’s anti-harassment policy. In addition, supervisory training should include a detailed discussion of the heightened risk supervisors face in this area, and practical tips for supervisors on how to manage their personal usage of social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and X (Formerly known as Twitter) in light of this risk.

Minimize the Risk of Systemic Harassment by Emphasizing Culture Starts at “The Top”

The EEOC indicated in its SEP that it will aggressively pursue claims of systemic harassment within workplaces. The best defense against these types of legal claims is the creation and maintenance of a culture of respect from the top down. In my experience, the most successful training programs are those that are endorsed by an organization’s top management, both verbally at the outset of the training session itself, and then by modeling appropriate behavior daily. This concept can be reinforced in the manager course training content in case studies, talking points, and facilitated brainstorming discussions about what this means in practice.  


Effective harassment prevention training is a key component of creating a respectful and inclusive work environment. There are many compelling reasons for organizations to now audit their current initiatives in this area, and if necessary, reboot those offerings, to remain current considering recent statistics and regulatory updates.



[1] Sophie Bethune, APA Poll reveals toxic workplaces, other significant workplace mental health challenges, July 13, 2023,

[2] Strategic Enforcement Plan Fiscal Years 2024 – 2028, EEOC,

[3] Id.

[4]EEOC Proposes Updated Workplace Harassment Guidance to Protect Workers, EEOC Press Release, September 29, 2023,

[5] The priority of “Addressing Selected Emerging and Developing Issues” also references the EEOC’s goals of addressing “qualification standards and inflexible policies or practices that discriminate against individuals with disabilities” and “protecting workers under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (“PWFA”).” Considering this, employers would be well-served to offer employers updated training on the Americans with Disabilities Act and the PWFA.  The other three non-harassment subject matter priorities set forth in the SEP are: 1) Eliminating Barriers to Recruitment and Hiring; 2) Advancing Equal Pay for All Workers; and 2) Preserving Access to the Legal System.

[6] Strategic Enforcement Plan Fiscal Years 2024 – 2028, EEOC, September 21, 2023,

[7] EEOC Releases Strategic Enforcement Plan, EEOC Press Release, September 21, 2023,

[8] PROPOSED Enforcement Guidance on Harassment in the Workplace, EEOC, September 29, 2023,

[9]  Id.