A Path Toward Effective Sexual Harassment Training

With awareness of sexual harassment at an all-time high, there’s never been a better time for organizations to review their approach to educating employees.

With awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace at an all-time high, there’s never been a better time for organizations to review their approach to educating employees.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the goal of any sexual harassment policy or training effort is not just to prevent sexual harassment, but to also establish a workplace culture supported by the twin pillars of respect and communication.

Traditional training models have focused on following the law, what not to do, and how to report sexual harassment, but have largely failed to foster the workplace culture companies need. It is clear a progressive alternative is needed that builds upon previous models and infuses them with a new approach that is inclusive, frank, and non-punitive in tone.

At MediaPRO, we took a look at research on what works, the revised recommendations of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), social science findings, and adult learning principles to craft an online training course that addresses the shortcomings of the typical strategies used for training.

Creating the Right Content

Often, training fails because while employees may be in agreement on what sexual harassment is, a focus on compliance for the purpose of creating a force field against legal action can make a workforce cynical of a policy’s intent. In addition, employees are not always given adequate descriptions on what actions to take when sexual harassment occurs.

To address these failings, organizations need a training program that use a scenario-focused approach to demonstrate to employees the behaviors they should emulate. Traditional content may be question-based, asking “Did this ever happen to you?” However, this can lead to participants tuning out questions they feel do not relate to something they have not personally experienced.

Scenario-based training takes a different approach by putting users in the driver’s seat and forcing them to think about a situation as opposed to simply dismissing it as something that does not apply to them. Scenarios also enable participants to consider a situation from multiple angles: victim, harasser, or bystander.

To be realistic, these scenarios should recognize that there are “gray areas” of behavior, and refrain from reinforcing group labels and stereotypes. Research shows employees are more likely to respond in a positive way to examples of harassment that can occur within the context of their workplace. Canned simulations can be regarded as unrelatable by your target audience, missing the mark and leaving behind a whiff of insincerity.

Focus on Establishing Culture

Any training course needs to be inclusive of all views on harassment. People who harass others do not view themselves as villains. An individual’s view on harassment can be the result of deeply-rooted cultural views that can complicate training and bring up complex emotions. This can be further exacerbated by the hierarchy of the workplace itself.

For this reason, training needs to have less of a punitive feel, and instead be more focused on creating positive emotions that make for a better workplace. Training is not about uprooting entire belief systems, it is about changing behavior and establishing a set of professional norms that make your work environment comfortable and allow employees to thrive.

For managers, training should also include role-based content that takes into account the power dynamic between them and other employees, and address both how they should respond to incidents and create environments that will discourage harassment without them having to intervene. It should also establish the importance of formal channels for reporting any incidents that occur as well as a clear policy of non-retaliation against any complainants.

Like any other training, the only way to measure its effectiveness is by examining the results. There is no one piece of technology that can measure how much an office has changed, but surveys can take the temperature of an office’s climate in the weeks after training has been completed and provide your company’s leadership with a sense of whether or not the training was effective.

The Bottom Line

Times are changing. What was ignored is now newsworthy, and what was once acceptable can poison a productive workplace. Done right, sexual harassment training can improve the culture of any company, and create an environment that promotes the types of behaviors that reduce the risk to your business and facilitate the respect and communication your company needs.


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