Many of us have a sneaking suspicion that workplace sexual harassment training simply doesn’t work.
Sure, we still make our staff go through it, but mostly because we have to. We want to protect our organizations from lawsuits and show that we’re making an effort. But if we’re honest with ourselves, the training seems mostly like a chore.
After all, most people wouldn’t dream of harassing their colleagues, so the training won’t make a difference to them. And if people are monstrous enough to think it’s OK to treat their colleagues so inappropriately, a few hours in a conference room with an HR specialist isn’t likely to change that. (As ELI founder Stephen Paskoff mentioned in this New York Times piece, it’s unlikely that a sexual harassment class would have stopped someone like Harvey Weinstein.)
Why waste your staff’s time and energy, not to mention dollars, on something that isn’t likely to make a difference in this serious issue?
Here’s why: The right training can and does curb bad behavior, and the consequences of that bad behavior are much too destructive too ignore.
The sexual harassment training that is NOT effective often suffers from one of several flaws, such as being too passive, too irrelevant, or lacking concrete tools your employees can use to take action. In fact, the very attitude that doubts the ability of the sexual harassment training to truly be effective may be the nail in the coffin for any potency it could have had.
To understand how sexual harassment training can work effectively, we must address the common ways it can go wrong. Here they are.
The Training is Not Actionable
“Awareness” is a bit of a buzzword these days. It seems that many people think that simply understanding any given issue can be a catalyst for change.
Awareness is a critical first step for developing any solution, including for sexual harassment training. But awareness alone won’t get rid of the sexual harassment in your workplace. In fact, it might actually make your employees feel worse. They’ll know when they witness inappropriate behavior, but they won’t know what to say or do about it.
Any effective sexual harassment training program will be able to give specific suggested behaviors.
For example, training may include actual scripts for employees to use when they encounter inappropriate behavior. Employees can learn good responses for when they’re the target of harassing behavior, a bystander who notices it, or confronted with an accusation of sexual harassment.
The Training is Passive and Boring
Passive learning, in which the “student” simply listens to a lecture or reads the material without engaging in it, can sometimes be very effective.
However, in many cases (sexual harassment training is one of them), passive learning cannot constitute the entire learning process. Employees need to learn concepts actively in order for them to really sink in.
Not only does interactive training force participants to pay attention and think on their feet, it reinforces the lessons in a way that simply watching a video cannot. Your employees will appreciate a chance to “practice” how to react to very uncomfortable situations in a safe environment. In giving them that practice, you’ll dramatically increase the odds that your sexual harassment training will affect their real-life behavior.
Too many training programs are created by companies more concerned with scoring training dollars and checking off compliance boxes than in changing culture. Check-the-box programs tend to be dry and outdated. We’ve all had to sit through presentations like this – if not for sexual harassment training, then for some other mandatory lesson from our school days.
It’s very unlikely that this kind of training will have a lasting effect.
It’s particularly unfortunate that many companies find a way to make such a vital and emotional topic so stale and boring. The #MeToo headlines that we’ve been exposed to lately should make training more relevant than ever. Integrating these real-world examples is a good way to make your training even more impactful.
No Consistency From Leaders
Finally, we come to the main culprit of failed sexual harassment training: The fact that leaders don’t often put much faith in it.
Some leaders simply don’t want to deal with these pesky behavior issues. They think adults should figure things out on their own, or that it’s an issue for HR to handle, or that it’s not their job to explain to people how to manage their relationships with colleagues. Still others don’t think that the issue of sexual harassment will ever really present itself in their workplace.
But that attitude is what fundamentally undermines any effort to prevent sexual harassment.
Leaders are responsible for enforcing the company’s values and goals, from the finances and funding to the culture. If it’s clear that leaders aren’t really buying “this whole sexual harassment thing,” the rest of the staff will follow suit. This is the case regardless of whether the organization in question is a Fortune 500 company or a small mom-and-pop business.
One way leaders may subconsciously signal that they’re not serious about sexual harassment is to require training for the rest of the staff but not attend it themselves. Others will attend the training and then consider the issue closed, never actually mentioning ongoing efforts in any meaningful way or bothering to set any goals for its success.
These kinds of actions make it crystal clear to employees that they are free to tune the training out, that it’s not really a company priority, and that it’s safe to ignore.
Plus, the personal behavior of company leaders can easily negate sexual harassment training. If they themselves behave in ways that make employees comfortable or are clearly tolerating bad behavior from certain employees, there’s no amount of training that will be successful.
Conclusion: No Training is Completely Foolproof
The fact is that no sexual harassment training policy can totally eliminate any chance of inappropriate behavior.
There will always be people who don’t seem to care about others’ feelings, who don’t understand how serious their bad behavior is, or who simply don’t think they’ll get caught.
The key is to make sure that these people only offend ONCE before they’re made to understand that their behavior won’t be tolerated.
Again, it’s not possible to prevent ALL inappropriate conduct – but it is possible to prevent a lot of it.
With a good training program and good leadership, would-be offenders will understand what kind of behavior is acceptable and which is not.
The more realistic goal should not only be to prevent all sexual harassment, but to identify instances of sexual harassment and correct them quickly. Training is a key component in developing this kind of culture, but leadership and consistency are even more essential.
If you want to invest in sexual harassment training that’s focused on real, long-term culture change, contact us at ELI. Our award-winning training is relevant, interactive, and delivered by professionals who stay on the cutting edge of legal workplace issues. We have programs available for businesses and organizations of all sizes and budgets.
What to Read Next:
- 4 Simple Guidelines for Men Afraid of #MeToo
- Sexual Harassment: Where to Start and Why it Matters
- Fixing Your Harassment Crisis Before it Hits