Sexual Harassment Training for Employees: Reframing the Conversation for Better Results
The #MeToo movement emerged nearly two years ago, providing a much-needed wake-up call to organizations that may have been lulled into thinking their prior sexual harassment training for employees was enough to keep harassment out of the workplace.
Policies, hotlines, and compliance training are tactics that represent a necessary and tactical, yet inefficient, approach to attempting to ward off sexual harassment in the workplace. If these methods aren’t sufficient or effective, what is? A training program that is prevention- rather than compliance-focused.
A few weeks ago, I teamed up with leading workplace sexual harassment researcher, Dr. Shannon Rawski, to consider the topic. We provided some insights into how companies can increase the likelihood that their efforts will yield positive results: to start, by reframing the way harassment training is presented.
Focus on the Positives Of Employee Harassment Training: What You Want, Not What You Don’t Want
One overriding factor that impacts employee harassment training outcomes related to sexual and other forms of harassment is the approach that organizations can take. A typical compliance approach focuses on what employees should not do—framing the discussion in a punitive way and conveying from the outset that employees are either ignorant about how to behave professionally or prone to acting inappropriately.
This approach has shown to have harmful effects on some employees and indeed can lead to an increase in concerning behaviors and attitudes. But taking the opposite approach can have a pointed impact on the effectiveness of sexual harassment training courses, according to EVERFI and Dr. Rawski’s research—backed up by additional empirical evidence.
Providing a positive framework for why the company is doing the training, for example, “we’re doing this training to promote a respectful culture,” encourages what employees should be doing—not what they should not do. Training should be focused on the behaviors you want to be exhibited in the workplace.
This is a frame of reference that employees can get behind because it positions them as a critical part of the solution, as opposed to being the cause of the problem.
Enlist Employees as Powerful Bystanders
When employees feel more favorably about the workplace harassment course they are required to attend, they are more likely to not only gain value from the training but to be willing to partner with the organization—to build a strong culture that is free from harassment.
Dr. Rawski’s research supports the idea of enlisting employees as bystanders and framing training from the standpoint of the bystander—as opposed to the victim or perpetrator. The EEOC select task force on the study of harassment in the workplace also recommends this approach.
Importantly, employers must engage employees as partners rather than “victims” in the training process. Too often, sexual harassment training for employees is seen as scolding or punishment or casting them in the role of either victim or perpetrator. Instead, engaging employees in training as partners in working together to create a culture that is inclusive and non-threatening for all help to cast them as allies.
Employees will respond more positively to training that focuses on things they can do if they see others either engaging in inappropriate behavior or being impacted by that behavior. This way, bystanders would still have the information they might need if they themselves become a target of harassment, for example, but they’ve received that information in a way that feels more relevant and constructive to them.
Keep in mind, though, that not everyone will be comfortable with the same sorts of intervention techniques. Provide multiple options for how staff can be positive bystanders or allies depending on the particular situation, their role in the organization, and their comfort level.
Go Beyond Legal Compliance Of Workplace Harassment Training
Most workplace harassment training initiatives are heavy on compliance which most employees—and trainers—heartily dislike. It’s important for companies to make training more relevant by providing a reason for the training that goes beyond legal compliance. Reframe the information as helpful knowledge for bystanders to be good allies in the workplace. The focus should not be simply what’s against the law, and what’s not. This type of focus places employees into two camps—they’re either a harasser or a victim. Nobody wants to be either.
Yes, the law must be covered for compliance reasons. We can’t overlook that. But we can ensure that the majority of the focus of harassment training is on helping employees understand and exhibit behaviors that support the organization’s standard of professionalism.
Legacy approaches towards sexual harassment training for employees that focus on compliance and legal requirements don’t work. We know that. Our focus is on prevention through evidence-based best practices that go beyond compliance to impact attitudes and behaviors in the workplace. By following the do’s and don’ts, you can reposition your training to engage employees as allies and advocates to help in the prevention of harassment.