In December 1992, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 85 percent of the respondents called workplace sexual harassment a problem. Fast forward to October 2017, and a new poll by ABC News/Washington Post found that 75 percent of respondents called sexual harassment in the workplace a problem in American society, and 64 percent believed it was a serious problem. This means that in 25 years of directed efforts by employers to address sexual harassment in the workplace, we really haven’t made much progress. How is this possible?
One issue is that there is a real disconnect in public perception of sexual harassment. There are those who are legitimately surprised workplace sexual harassment is still a significant problem, and then there are those who are legitimately surprised that anyone else would be surprised about that. Part of this is because of people’s differing views of sexual harassment. Some feel that any romantic or sexual statements or actions whatsoever, if they happen in the workplace, constitute sexual harassment. Others have an “anything goes” attitude about it. Most people, though, fall somewhere in between.
The Importance of Training
It is up to an employer to define what the culture of the workplace is going to be through its policies and procedures, management interactions, and resolutions of workplace disputes. The importance of good, effective training cannot be overstated. Training allows an employer to directly communicate to employees the type of workplace the employer envisions—ideally a diverse, energetic, and respectful workplace full of good ideas and a team of people with one goal in common: to make money.
The problem is that employers often view sexual harassment training, along with other administrative tasks, as having little to do with “making money.” Rather, training can be seen as taking employees away from the work they were hired to do, thus, reducing the profitability of the company. Over the years, sexual harassment training in many organizations has adapted to this by becoming a routine, yearly, nothing-new-here requirement, geared toward providing the necessary information as quickly as possible so the employer can check off the box and move on to other things.
This mindset needs to be changed.
Sexual harassment training is important. It is necessary. And it can be helpful to keep employees on task; reduce personnel conflicts; and create a happier, more productive workforce.
New Focus and Strategies
As an initial matter, the focus of sexual harassment training should be adjusted. Although specific prohibited behaviors certainly should be discussed during training (and included in the employer’s anti-harassment policies), there often is too much emphasis on “do this” or “don’t do that.” Employers instead should stress the culture of the workplace, the need for diverse points of view, and the fact that employees are all important members of a team who fill essential roles. “This is who we are, this is what we do, and we’re awesome!” Respect for one another should be emphasized. And after laying that groundwork, the trainer then can set out the expectations of the employer and the types of behavior that will not be tolerated.
Training needs to be interesting. Nobody wants to sit through boring presentations in which nothing new is learned. Thought should be given to how to make the training sessions less tedious.
One way to make training more interesting is smaller sessions, since employees often are more encouraged to engage with the trainer if they aren’t hidden in a crowd. Using real-world examples, perhaps background facts regarding something that is in the news or a lawsuit, along with the real-life consequences of inappropriate behavior, keeps training interesting and provides a more tangible perspective for employees.
Training should be informative, as well. Employees should not attend training solely to fulfill an employer’s training requirements; employees should learn something. For example, a trainer could outline a new law, a different perspective, or create scenarios of how employees should respond to particular situations.
Finally, the identity of the trainer is of utmost importance—he or she needs to be positive, encouraging, and able to hold employees’ attention. If an organization lacks someone internally with that skill set, it should consider retaining an outside attorney or professional trainer.
None of this is meant to suggest training must be lengthy. While training given to new employees needs to be more comprehensive, updated training can be just that—a refresher of what employees already know and an update on any new issues that have arisen since the last training.
Training Goals Support Company Goals
Approaching sexual harassment training with a new perspective and some fresh ideas and strategies will help to create a productive, respectful place of employment. This furthers the overall goal of the company to be successful and profitable, as effective training can reduce complaints of harassment. When there are reduced complaints of harassment, more resources can be put toward building the company and the workforce that supports it.
Attorney Sally Culley is a partner of Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell (Orlando, FL), who practices in the areas of employment and commercial litigation. She represents employers, both in the public and private sector, in employment-related claims, including claims of discrimination, wage and hour violations, whistle-blower violations, wrongful termination, harassment and retaliation. She provides consulting, training and investigation services to help prevent such claims and minimize risk. Culley also assists with the creation and enforcement of employee handbooks, severance agreements and non-compete agreements. To contact her, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.