Organizations have been providing harassment training for employees for a number of years, and in some areas, city, state, and federal government agencies have been requiring it too. Yet, despite the widespread adoption of workplace training programs, historical data doesn’t support the effectiveness of those efforts.
Companies pour a lot of resources—time and money—into these programs. The costs can be profound:
- The actual cost of developing, licensing, or purchasing workplace training programs and materials;
- The opportunity cost of pulling employees away from their regular duties; and
- The cost of poor morale, diminished engagement, or other employee “backlash effects” caused by poorly designed or implemented harassment training.
But workplace training programs don’t have to represent a dark hole that resources are poured down never to be seen again. When done well, effective workplace training programs can be a tremendous investment that drives many positive outcomes—for the organization, for employees, and for a healthy society at large.
Here we take a look at what we believe are the six most significant barriers to achieving real results from your investment in workplace training programs.
What are the 6 biggest threats to an effective workplace training program?
1. Lack of compliance
It is critical that a workplace training program, particularly those dealing with regulated subjects such as harassment or data privacy, is compliant with applicable law. Workplace training that is not updated on a regular basis to reflect legislative or regulatory developments can expose an organization to risk.
2. Content that causes harm
The way the subject matter is taught can lead to significant, unintended consequences. For example, recent research has shown that sexual harassment training that has a punitive tone, is highly legalistic, and that relies on egregious examples can cause backlash effects in 25% of employees, leading to decreased likelihood of reporting problematic behavior and increased intentions to engage in sexual behaviors at work. So effective harassment training should not simply focus on legal definitions and penalties for violations, but it also must teach employees what TO do, and the positive steps they can take to prevent concerning behavior at work—such as bystander intervention techniques. This also requires a focus on highly realistic, nuanced, gray-area scenarios, so employees can be attuned to the warning signs of misconduct (not just the most obvious, illegal behavior) and be prepared to take positive action to improve workplace culture.
3. Not training broadly enough.
Often organizations think of workplace training as something that interrupts the usual work to be done, and therefore it should be assigned to the fewest employees possible (such as only those required by law to take it). But effective workplace training is not a deviation from work—it is an enabler of good work. And if we want to change workplace culture, minimize risk, and drive positive behaviors, every employee—and not just management staff or those in certain locations—must be a part of the effort and receive needed information. So while it may be tempting to only provide sexual harassment prevention training to employees in states where it is required, harassment does not recognize state borders. It is critical that all employees receive consistent education, regardless of location, to ensure maximum benefits from workplace harassment training.
4. Lack of inclusive content and design
Our workplaces are more diverse than ever, and if employees do not see or hear themselves in workplace training courses, cannot participate fully, or feel excluded by its contents, it can cause them to discount the training’s value, tune out, and even damage their morale and engagement. Inclusive content and design require intentional effort and the latest thinking and best practices, particularly with regards to:
- Language: particularly regarding gendered language, addressing identity characteristics, and avoiding stereotypes;
- Imagery: to ensure it represents a wide array of personal identities, job roles, and workplace settings;
- Dialogue: so it feels realistic, natural, and resonates with an organization’s workforce; and
- Course design and learning activities: to ensure they engage and support all learners, regardless of learning preference or accessibility needs.
5. Not using data
Effective workplace training programs rely heavily on data to identify the key subject areas to be addressed, measure the immediate and long-term impacts of the training, and inform future initiatives. As my colleague Brian Mahl recently wrote, data can quickly identify areas of strength and improvement, allowing companies to efficiently allocate resources for follow-up programs and initiatives. Companies can also review year-over-year data from training courses to review how effective their initiatives have been—and make changes as needed to receive the maximum benefits of workplace training.
6. Not part of a holistic approach
Workplace training should be a part of a broader, ongoing effort to ensure reinforcement of learning and understanding of the importance of these issues. For example, following training with additional initiatives or leadership-led messages about the importance of the topic can increase the likelihood that employees will take actions aligned with the training and help improve their workplace culture.
Move beyond minimum compliance
Focus on the holistic benefits that effective workplace training can provide across all workplace settings and locations to help your organization achieve a measurable and positive impact on your workplace culture. Workplace training should not be a one-and-done, narrowly-focused event. Instead, effective training must be ongoing, organization-wide and comprehensive—not only to meet relevant legal standards but also to leverage proven strategies for impacting behavior.