Shannon Rawski, Ph.D, Assistant Professor of Management and Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

Sexual harassment training programs – as they exist in many organizations today – very often doesn’t work. Even the EEOC has found no evidence that standard, legal compliance-driven sexual harassment training is effective. If it had been effective, the #MeToo movement likely would never have had such a devastating scope. If it had been effective, companies—despite administering sexual harassment training courses for years—would not still be faced with ever-increasing claims of harassment and be subject to the monetary payouts and brand damage that come with them.

There’s even worse news. In some cases, the training companies provide may be doing more harm than good! In fact, I found while completing my Ph.D. dissertation research that 25% of my sample experienced a negative reaction to sexual harassment training activities, which led to several harmful workplace outcomes, including increased intentions to engage in sexual behaviors at work. You can hear more about these alarming results in my TEDx Talk, #MeToo, #TimesUp, Now What?

In a recent webinar, “Your Sexual Harassment Training May Be Doing More Harm Than Good,” Elizabeth Bille, Sr. Director of Harassment Prevention at EVERFI, and I took a look at the situation. I provided my assessment of where training falls flat and offered insights into what organizations can do to increase the effectiveness of sexual harassment training. Here’s a quick recap:

10 Ways to Improve Your Sexual Harassment Training

  1. Keep it positive. Focus your sexual harassment training efforts on what employees should do; rather than what they should not do.
  2. Help employees understand how they can move from being passive bystanders to being active allies. Provide multiple options and examples for how they can step in if they observe a violation of sexual harassment requirements. 
  3. Present information for “targets” (victims of harassment) and “imperfect allies” (those accused of harassment) not by addressing learners as potential victims or harassers, but as allies who can share needed information and advice with their colleagues. This reframing can increase their likelihood to report, to respond to an accusation, and to understand how the investigation process and progressive discipline systems work.
  4. Step back from legal, compliance-based sexual harassment training requirements which can lead to backlash. Yes, the law must be covered for compliance reasons, but it can be reframed as helpful knowledge needed to enact the positive ally role.
  5. Establish the professionalism standard. Be clear about what the expected behaviors are and explicit in terms of what professionalism looks like in your organization.
  6. Recognize that different people will perceive different comments and behaviors as offensive or hurtful. To navigate these differences, also train staff in conflict management skills, empathy or perspective-taking skills, and critical conversation skills through general principles and the use of scenarios for practicing these skills.
  7. Build your sexual harassment training programs on the foundation of your company’s culture and policies. But first, take steps to ensure that your policies and procedures are fair and easy to use.
  8. Recruit social influencers. Reach out to engage influential employees to ask them for their endorsement of the training—their positive support can help pave the way for others to reframe how they view this training. Ask influencers to preview and provide feedback on the sexual harassment training activities and to play a positive role before, during, and after training.
  9. Anticipate and address frequently asked questions (FAQs): “So, we can’t tell jokes or have fun at work anymore?,” “I could get fired for paying someone a compliment!?”
  10. Take an evidence-based approach to training. Stay on top of the latest research, measure training effectiveness, and make improvements based on the data you gather.

A Meaningful Response to #MeToo

The #MeToo movement has proven, just because harassment in the workplace may not be visible, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Learn about the challenges of creating a workplace free of harassment and strategies for building a supportive workplace culture.

Sexual harassment training courses are critically important, both from a compliance standpoint and to continually reinforce the positive culture you are working to develop and maintain. But the way this training has traditionally been conducted has left a sour taste in the mouths of employees, managers, HR professionals—and worse yet, we have no conclusive evidence that it actually prevents harassing behavior at work in the long term.

If we want different results (and we do), we need to dramatically change our sexual harassment training approach.