Sexual Harassment Training: A New Approach Is Needed

Sexual harassment has never been more in the public eye than it is now. Now's the time to rethink the traiditonal approach to sexual harassment training.

When the first #MeToo tweet circulated on the Internet, it ignited a spark that pushed the topic of sexual harassment to the forefront of our national consciousness.

It triggered the voices of everyday people to join a chorus of celebrities in shining a light on a subject many find difficult to discuss and harder to address.

In the roughly three decades since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment can be considered a form of gender discrimination, the legal ramifications of failing to foster a workplace environment built on respect and communication has impacted everything from office water-cooler talk to dinners with the boss.

Now more than ever, understanding what sexual harassment is and how to address and prevent it as a manager, subordinate, or simply a coworker is even more critical than in years past. In January, a national survey of 2,000 people in the U.S. found 81% of women and 43% of men experienced some form of sexual harassment and or assault in their lifetime.

With millions of dollars in lawsuits and the incalculable cost of damage to a company’s reputation on the line, getting sexual harassment training right isn’t an option - it’s a mandate.

Using Policy to Create A Positive Culture

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as:

“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

Seems simple enough. Yet definitions can vary from country to country, protections can vary from state to state within the U.S., and applying the definition to the facts of a situation is not always straightforward.

Fortunately for business leaders, legal guidance and policy templates exist to help their organizations establish policies tailored to the requirements they need to meet. Still, these policies must also be living documents; they are not meant to be static. As societal attitudes and norms shift, policies must shift as well, and should be subject to regular review.

Keep in mind that employees will disregard policies that are not realistic; those that ask employees to stop interacting naturally will be ignored, which can lead to environments where not only are policies not consistently applied but attempts to create a positive workplace culture are ultimately undermined.

More than just checking a box, it is this positive workplace culture, combined with policies that support said culture, that should be the ultimate tool against sexual harassment in the workplace.

So What’s Wrong With Training Today?

There are several areas where traditional training models have fallen short of this goal. Conventional approaches to compliance training typically focus on three areas: what the law says, how to report any issues that arise, and what not to do. While these are all important areas to cover, research has discovered that focusing on these subjects alone does not bring about the positive change businesses expect and hope for. There are a multitude of reasons for this, but it’s primarily because:

1. While people are often in agreement on what constitutes sexual harassment, they are not given adequate descriptions on what actions to take when it occurs.

2. A focus on compliance as a defense mechanism against lawsuits breeds cynicism.

3. An individual’s view on harassment can be the result of deep-seated, culturally-held views, and are therefore unlikely to be changed as a result of training - in fact, such efforts may inadvertently result in backlash.

What is missing from the traditional approach is content that builds empathy and changes the perceptions of the issue in the workplace.

To do that, a new training model is needed -one that goes beyond identifying negative behaviors and telling people, “don’t do that.”

The good news is that most people know when they are making someone uncomfortable, and by taking the right steps your company can create an environment that fosters positive communication that can diffuse incidents well before any harm is done to your company or its reputation. In a future blog post, I will dive down into what this new approach to training should look like, and how it will benefit your business.


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