What is effective anti-harassment and discrimination training in the U.S.?

*This blog post was updated on February 18, 2022 to incorporate new data and company services. 

U.S. federal and state laws require or strongly encourage employers to make appropriate efforts to properly train employees, take remedial corrective actions, and prevent any form of workplace harassment and discrimination. That is why it is critical to deliver timely and effective anti-harassment and discrimination compliance training programs. But first, let’s dig into what harassment and discrimination means and looks like in the workplace, what U.S. guidance around anti-harassment training is out there, and why this training matters no matter what the requirements are. 

Key definitions related to anti-harassment and discrimination 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines harassment as unwelcome conduct that is based on protected classes such as race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, age, disability, or genetic information (including family medical history). In a similar way, the American Psychological Association defines discrimination as the unfair or prejudicial treatment of people and groups based on characteristics such as race, gender, age or sexual orientation. 

According to the EEOC, harassment and discrimination become unlawful where: 

  • Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment. 
  • The misconduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. 

Harassment and discrimination require tangible employment action and creates a hostile work environment, which is often defined through frequency and severity. The misconduct must be objectionably viewed as inappropriate from the perspective of a reasonable person.  

To help prevent incidents of workplace harassment and discrimination, employers are strongly encouraged—and in some areas of the U.S., required—to deliver anti-harassment and discrimination compliance training. This type of training can effectively create safer work environments while also meeting the necessary legal guidance or regulations.  

Federal, state, and local guidance on anti-harassment training 

To date, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, New York State, and New York City are the U.S. states and localities that have passed statutes requiring sexual harassment training. But other federal regulations and court decisions have made clear that employers should provide anti-harassment training to all employees in all states. 

In its 2016 Report from the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, the EEOC noted that “employers should adopt a robust anti-harassment policy, regularly train each employee on its contents, and vigorously follow and enforce the policy.”  

Decisions by federal courts also emphasize that employers have greater opportunity and responsibility to prevent misconduct—and that employers who fail to provide anti-harassment and discrimination training may even lose their ability to raise an affirmative defense in a harassment lawsuit. In the cases of Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an employer could escape liability for “hostile environment” harassment committed by a supervisor if it could prove that:  

  • The employer took reasonable care to “prevent and correct promptly” any harassing behavior 
  • The harassment victim unreasonably failed to complain. 

3 reasons why training employees on anti-harassment and discrimination matters 

Without effective training, the financial toll of workplace harassment or discrimination takes is striking. A 2019 report from Deloitte estimating the economic costs of workplace sexual harassment in Australia found that, when unchecked, harassment in the workplace imposes a significant number of costs—including $2.6 billion in lost productivity, or $1,053 on average per victim. 

Beyond the financial significance, there are other valid reasons why employers need to properly train employees: 

  • Training favorably impacts employee behavior and creates an overall positive impact on the workplace. According to LRN’s 2022 Ethics & Compliance Program Effectiveness Report, adherence to ethics and compliance got stronger in the last year—from 79% to 82%—despite the stresses and strains of crises. 
  • Robust and periodic training minimizes liability by providing an affirmative defense to any alleged claims. 
  • Training is one of the most effective ways to educate employees about workplace policies, legal rules, and complaint procedures. The 2022 E&C Program Effectiveness Report confirms this, as the majority of respondents indicate their organizations are making their training platforms more accessible—through remote technology, customized content, shorter and more targeted training asses, and mobile devices. 

Why training management on anti-harassment and discrimination matters 

Data from the LRN Benchmark of Ethical Culture notes that most employees raise ethical concerns to their manager. So, it is critical that managers are trained to appropriately handle concerns related to workplace harassment or discrimination. To go a step further, any employee concern should be received seriously. Demonstrating respect and follow-through—even if the result is not what the employee hoped for—is critical to maintaining trust and confidence in the organization and its leaders. 

Employers must train managers and supervisors on how to model respectful behavior, monitor employees, and recognize inappropriate behaviors. It is strongly encouraged that training should specify and illustrate:  

  • The importance of your company’s anti-harassment and discrimination policy. 
  • The types of conduct that violate company policy. 
  • The responsibilities of responding to any complaints and stopping retaliation.  
  • The best practices for immediately responding to concerns of harassing or discriminatory conduct. 

The key takeaway 

No matter the particular federal, state, or local guidance, training employees on how to effectively prevent, identify, and report incidents of workplace harassment and discrimination matters to the health and success of your team members and greater organization. Case in point: LRN research shows that companies with the strongest ethical cultures outperform—by approximately 40%—across all measures of business performance, including levels of customer satisfaction, employee loyalty, innovation, adaptability, and growth. 

Click here to sample our anti-harassment and discrimination training, along with other essential ethics and compliance courses, for free. And check out these additional resources for more information: