Everybody's talking

Nora Akins

Federal, state and local governments as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) are all talking about sexual harassment. The federal government is focused on settlement disclosures, arbitration agreements and tax deduction denial. States are proposing restricting nondisclosure agreements and requiring anti-sexual harassment training and policies. The EEOC proposed new enforcement guidance outlining legally protected characteristics and liability standards for employers as well as a threshold for hostile workplace and training considerations. Like the EEOC guidance, most of these initiatives have yet to be enacted.

Along comes the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision in the Boeing Co., 365 NLRB No. 154(2017) saying policies requiring civility in the workplace are now lawful. This decision is a new perspective flying in the face of their previous Lutheran Heritage decision that chilled employers’ ability to require “nice.” The Lutheran Heritage decision prohibited any employer rule that might interfere with an employee’s right to protected, concerted activity; the right to complain about work conditions and potentially organize. Since that 2004 decision, employee handbooks and rules have been scrutinized to leave out or carefully craft rules prohibiting negativity, disparagement or harassment.

This recent ruling creates a window of opportunity for employers to create and enforce policies to raise the civility bar. The NLRB agreed maintaining civility rules is justified by the employer’s responsibility to maintain a work environment free of unlawful harassment, violence and unnecessary conflict that interferes with legitimate business goals.

Seven states have introduced legislation requiring or encouraging employers to conduct anti-harassment training. New York State and New York City have enacted legislation requiring anti-sexual harassment training. We may be able to credit the #MeToo movement for all this talk. NLRB’s Boeing decision gives us the opportunity to view sexual harassment in the context of incivility.

Raising the bar on civility in our workplaces has no downside. Respect connects us at a personal level. It creates safety where individuals can perform at their peak. Respectful relationships create an atmosphere of trust. Being civil is not the absence of rudeness. Being civil is being a good citizen, doing what is right, listening to others’ opinions openly and having objective candor, being respectful and earning trust. Respectful behaviors yield trust, helps people collaborate and hold each accountable.

Being civil is a skill that can be learned. Employers have an opportunity to establish civility norms. Clarified civility norms will lay the groundwork for civility training. Part of the new EEOC guidance recommends “bystander training.” This training need not be limited to observing a colleague being harassed. Bystander training for civility norms will encourage a sense of community over a sense of individual entitlement.

While eradicating sexual harassment serves as a talking point for our legislatures, employers may be better served to take advantage of the NLRB’s decision to allow employers to require civility. A workplace that is civil is psychologically safe. A safe and respectful workplace will reduce the likelihood of any type of harassment. It will do more than that; it will relieve employees of unnecessary stress. 

Nora T. Akins, of Strategic Management provides management training and refines human resource systems to help employers build respectful workplaces. Reach Nora at 219-873-1735 or nora@managepeopleright.com.

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