Sexual Harassment Compliance Training That Actually Works: Does It Exist?

As reports of sexual harassment appear in the news every day, organizations may well wonder how to prevent their names from appearing in a similar context. It’s unlikely that the headliners in those stories were left out of sexual harassment training, so why didn’t it work?

Half of women and one-tenth of men say they have experienced harassment at work, according to a recent Economist article. The author points out that “even if one leaves aside all moral arguments – which one should not – failing to deal with harassment is usually bad for business.” A 2016 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) task force report cited “decreased productivity, increased turnover, and reputational harm” as some of the costs of harassment for businesses and noted that in 2015 alone, the EEOC recovered $164.5 million for workers reporting harassment.

The Problem with Training Programs

Ingrid Fredeen, vice president of online learning content for NAVEX Global, told Marketplace.org earlier this year that 76 percent of companies provide harassment training, and one-third of large companies spend $100,000 or more on it. So why is harassment still a problem?

“For a generation,” says Andrew Rawson, and CLO of Traliant, “the working public in the United States has been burdened with an unceasing drumbeat of incredibly boring training written by lawyers that taught people the law.” This training was not engaging, and it didn’t behavior change. What’s more, if the leaders don’t demonstrate through their actions that sexual harassment is taken seriously, and if their own misbehavior goes without consequences, training is useless.

“Perfunctory anti-harassment training,” says the Economist, “can put employees’ backs up and, if it uses absurd examples, can even make them less sympathetic towards victims and less likely to see borderline cases as wrong.” Rawson agrees, saying that if training is “really boring, or the answer’s really obvious, it trivializes the message,” which can make the situation worse.

Chris Edmonds, of The Purposeful Culture Group, says culture is key. If an organization’s culture doesn’t support the behaviors and skills employees learn about during training, then “the training will have no sustained benefit.” The EEOC task force findings would seem to support this belief. According to the report, “the least common response to harassment is to take some formal action,” and about 75 percent of people who are harassed at work never talk to a supervisor or union representative about it. The reasons people don’t report harassment include a fear of “disbelief of their claim, inaction on their claim, blame, or social or professional retaliation.”

Changing the Status Quo

Both The Economist and the EEOC recommend conducting a climate survey to determine whether – and the extent to which – harassment is a problem. This understanding will help inform training. The EEOC further recommends tailoring training “to the specific workforce and workplace, and to different cohorts of employees.” Of course, learning leaders know this to be true for any type of training; personalization is key.

It’s also important to train mid-level managers and front-line supervisors and then “hold [them] accountable for preventing and/or responding to workplace harassment, including through the use of metrics and performance reviews,” according to the EEOC report. Rawson agrees, saying, “The managers are the first line of defense.” They need to know how to handle situations when someone reports harassment to them, what they should be looking for in the workplace and what to do if he or she ever wrongfully accused of sexual harassment.

Train mid-level managers and front-line supervisors, and then hold them accountable. 

Edmonds recommends a three-part approach to ensuring that sexual harassment training sticks. First, leaders should define the culture they want the organization to have – and it should be one that they “are willing to champion, reinforce [and] model.” Then, develop training that’s aligned with that culture. Edmonds recommends “teaching a model” and then using video examples and role-playing so people can see best practices in action and then practice them. Online communities can be effective for reinforcing learning after formal training. Finally, hold everyone accountable for demonstrating the values, behaviors, and skills conveyed during training. “Leaders must invest half of their time modeling those behaviors, coaching those behaviors, praising those behaviors, ad ,” Edmonds says. “For the rest of time.”

“People remember stories better than they remember the law,” says Rawson. He recommends creating videos with compelling stories that demonstrate harassment scenarios and their serious consequences. “Like any good drama,” the stories should make viewers “a little uncomfortable.” Innovations in learning technologies mean videos can be interactive, so learners can select different options and see how different scenarios play out. Combining these videos with classroom training can engage a diverse learning population.

Create compelling stories that demonstrate harassment scenarios and their serious consequences. 

Ruby Spencer, director of global curriculum development at PulseLearning, wrote last year that for “sensitive subject matter,” it’s important during training to “provide opportunities for self-reflection.” Asking participants questions like, “What would you do?” supports understanding and retention.

The Future

Rawson says his company is looking into just-in-time delivery that’s linked to people’s activity. For example, imagine the impact of automatically assigning new managers to sexual harassment training when they’re promoted or sending text reminders of training and policies just before employees arrive at a holiday party.

“Right now,” Rawson says, “most compliance training is a blunt instrument. It should really be much more nuanced.” Providing specific, engaging training at the moment of need – and developing a culture that reinforces the seriousness of sexual harassment – can help prevent it from happening and ensure an appropriate response if it does.

Taryn Oesch, CPTM

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