Sexual Harassment Training: Myths And Reality

Many organizations turn to the least expensive anti-harassment training “solution” with poorly acted videos demonstrating blatant and unrealistic scenarios that turn the training into a joke.

New reports of sexual harassment at work appear daily. According to a 2016 report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as many as 85 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work (https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment/upload/report.pdf). The response that many organizations are taking to end sexual harassment is comparable to using a small bandage on a compound fracture.

The EEOC task force found a majority of corporate sexual harassment prevention training programs have not prevented harassment even though NPR’s Marketplace reports that the anti-harassment training industry’s annual revenue reaches into the billions of dollars (https://www.marketplace.org/2017/04/06/business/companies-seek-legal-cover-attempts-limit-workplaceharassment). Prevention training is mandatory in some states such as California, Connecticut, and Maine, and between 70 and 90 percent of companies in the United States provide some type of anti-harassment training, according to the EEOC report, which also states that “the majority of the trainings are ineffective, (which) can be unhelpful or even counterproductive.”

WHY TRAINING FAILS

Most organizations see anti-sexual harassment training as a mandatory compliance issue. Their goal is to be able to “check the box,” so they can demonstrate a good faith effort once they are sued. The Supreme Court’s decisions in Ellerth and Faragher provided employers an incentive to demonstrate they had taken appropriate steps to prevent harassment. Requiring employers to put training into place is a staple of the conciliation agreements and consent decrees that EEOC and private plaintiff attorneys negotiate every year. If a company can prove it made a good faith effort to limit harassment in the workplace, a judge or jury may limit the company’s liability when someone working there breaks the law.

The focus on avoiding legal liability results in hundreds of highly ineffective solutions. Many organizations turn to the least expensive “solution” with poorly acted videos demonstrating blatant and unrealistic scenarios that turn the training into a joke. Other online training is nothing more than a PowerPoint with a voice-over. Employees viewing these videos are getting a clear message that they have to do this for compliance, which sends a message that the company really is not committed to doing anything beyond the minimum. Thus, the training results in more cynicism.

Other highly ineffective training alternatives are two-hour mandatory training programs, which may include more than 125 slides on definitions, policies, and procedures with little or no self-analysis.

HOW TO CREATE AN EFFECTIVE ANTI-HARASSMENT PROGRAM

A meta-analysis of the research, and based on delivering hundreds of programs, reveals several factors that will increase the likelihood of a successful anti-harassment training program:

1. Leadership, leadership, leadership: There must be an unequivocal commitment by senior leadership to take responsibility for the actions of others and demonstrate this through policies and practices that affect reward and recognition. Whenever possible, senior leaders should deliver the message in person; otherwise, there should be an unequivocal introductory message.

2. Training must be done in-person whenever possible. Live trainers who are dynamic, engaging, and have full command of the subject matter are the most likely to deliver effective training. Professional and experienced facilitators who have a commitment to creating an inclusive organization should deliver the training. An in-person trainer, experienced in guiding the conversation, is most suited to work through questions with the participants. If providing in-person training is not feasible because of cost or a physically dispersed workforce, interactive Webinars (which can be recorded), tailored to the organization’s specific workplace culture and workforce, should be created and should include engagement activities by the participants.

3. In addition to reviewing definitions and policies around harassment, the training must be highly interactive and contain real-life scenarios. Ideally role-plays or well-done video scenarios can be practiced or viewed, followed by an examination of “What did you see?” Often, there are multiple interpretations of the same situation. A good facilitator will help others to see this and help the participants develop an enhanced ability to clarify misunderstandings before they result in more damaging situations.

4. Anti-sexual harassment training must be part of a broader anti-harassment training initiative. When harassment based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and other factors is included, there can be a broader understanding of hurtful behaviors, actions, jokes, etc.

5. Training must be tied to accountability, which must be demonstrated. An organization that has an effective anti-harassment program—including an effective and safe reporting system and a clear workplace investigation system with written and proportionate corrective actions—communicates to all employees that the organization takes harassment seriously and will hold everyone accountable. Mid-level managers and front-line supervisors should be held accountable for preventing and/or responding to workplace harassment, utilizing metrics and performance reviews. When trained correctly, middle managers and first-line supervisors, in particular, can be a company’s most valuable resource in preventing and stopping harassment.

6. Sustain the learning. The training should not be a one-and-done experience. A Continuous Contact process can send monthly reminders such as case studies, best practices, and other “nudges” that remind participants to remain mindful of the importance of the training.

7. Anti-harassment training should include a module on what to do when you observe harassment. Bystander intervention training has proven to be a valuable part of any anti-harassment initiative.

8. The training must be customized to the specific industry, workforce, client base, location, level, employee experience, and more. We recently conducted anti-harassment training in the UAE, where it was common practice in a client’s newly acquired location to call female employees by insulting terms such as “babe,” “honey,” etc. Fortunately, our client’s corporate culture would not tolerate such behavior, and the training helped to broaden awareness and be the first step in enforcing the new norms of the organization. Global organizations should consider conducting training in multiple languages and customizing the programs to be culturally appropriate.

9. Most importantly, the success of any anti-harassment initiative must be an integral piece of the overarching corporate culture. Effective training does not occur in a vacuum. A culture of inclusion is fundamental to the success of any anti-harassment training program. Inclusive organizations are more successful, innovative, and profitable, with more loyal and engaged employees. The training usually includes an exploration of workplace norms, including a discussion of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behaviors in the workplace. According to Dr. Vicki Magley of the University of Connecticut, “Harassment training is most successful if seen as an extension of an ethical corporate culture, where you will learn how to create an inclusive corporate community based on a collaborative mindset.”

To be effective in stopping harassment, such training cannot stand alone but rather must be part of a holistic prevention effort that includes the elements of leadership and accountability. Please share your experiences and insights regarding anti-harassment training with me at ngoodman@global-dynamics.com for use in a follow-up column.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at ngoodman@globaldynamics.com. For more information, visit http://www.globaldynamics.com.

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