5 Ideas for More Effective Sexual Harassment Training

By: Rhiân Davies on November 15, 2019

Workplace sexual harassment was a problem long before the era of the #MeToo and #TIMESUP movements. After two high-profile Supreme Court cases in 1998, sexual harassment training became as synonymous with corporate life as water coolers and cubicles. Today, 71 percent of businesses offer some form of sexual harassment prevention training.

But sexual harassment training hasn’t made harassment go away. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 62% of Americans say that sexual harassment in the workplace is still a serious problem.

Especially in the face of an international reckoning like #MeToo, companies need to do better at promoting a safer workplace for their employees. How can you go beyond checking a compliance box to actually helping create a culture of safety?

Here are five ideas for sexual harassment training you can implement now—either in-person or through your learning management system (LMS). These ideas will help make your sexual harassment training courses more engaging and, as a result, more effective.

Idea #1: Start with a message from your CEO

Mandatory. Compulsory. Required.

First impressions matter. When your employees receive the email with these words in the title, accompanied by links to sexual harassment trainings, are you sending the message that your company takes this issue seriously, or is it just another corporate training exercise?

If the message is coming from HR, you’re already starting off on the wrong foot. According to Dr. Debra Guckenheimer, a diversity and inclusion specialist who advises small businesses on sexual harassment training, the who behind your sexual harassment training is just as, if not more important, than the what and how.

“If you have a training where there’s no messaging coming from the top of the organization saying this is really important, your training is not going to have any impact,” Guckenheimer says.

A simple three-minute video or in-person speech from your CEO, or another influential leader, can set the right tone for the rest of the course. Jason Meyer, president of ethics and compliance consultancy LeadGood, LLC., has some tips to make this introduction as effective as possible:

  • When explaining why this training is happening, don’t talk about laws. “If the explanation for the course is ‘the law says we have to do it,’ that rings very hollow to people. The core values of the company should be … We’re doing this because we’re about doing the right thing.”

  • Reinforce that reporting harassment is encouraged, accusations will be taken seriously, and retaliation will not be tolerated. “Fear of retaliation and speaking up is the number one issue. It’s deeply ingrained in our culture that you don’t speak up. I think you have to address this upfront in a direct and honest way.”

  • Be honest about expectations. “In an opening message, for example, you say you’ll be assigned and you’ll complete a number of different experiences. Not every second of [training] is going to be fascinating. If you’re honest about that, it makes an enormous difference in the attitude of people hearing the message.”

Idea #2: Break up long trainings into impactful chunks

In states like California, Connecticut, and Delaware it’s mandatory for employers to provide two hours of sexual harassment training every two years. Does this mean you need to do one, two-hour training course?

Not at all. In fact, delivering all of your sexual harassment training in one fell swoop is a good way to ensure no one stays engaged with it.

Breaking up lengthy sexual harassment training courses into multiple microlearning sessions has a number of benefits. For one, it only tears employees away from work for minutes at a time, rather than hours. Because the brain’s working memory is limited, it also helps trainees retain information better (one study says as much as 22 percent better).

This approach also gives you more flexibility within the course itself, allowing you to administer different approaches to different issues of sexual harassment at different times.


Courses dashboard in Absorb LMS

You can mix in-person classroom sessions with online modules (also known as blended learning), which suit some employees more than others.

The most significant impact that breaking up your sexual harassment training sessions has is repetition. Key ideas and messages about respectful behavior, retaliation, and policies need to be communicated multiple times to stick with your workforce.

“Good training is the same as good marketing,” Meyer says. “If you have a key message, you need to deliver it multiple times. Saying it once is not going to make anyone remember.”

Idea #3: Tailor the training to your company’s unique situation

A lot of off-the-shelf courses on sexual harassment hone in on a similar setting: Offices. This makes sense intuitively, until you learn that most workplace sexual harassment in the U.S. doesn’t happen in a typical office.

According to the Center for American Progress, the three industries that filed the most sexual harassment complaints to the EEOC from 2005 to 2015 were:

  1. Accommodation and food services (e.g., hotels, restaurants, bars)

  2. Retail

  3. Manufacturing



Sexual harassment charges by industry, from 2005 through 2015 (Source)


Though third-party courses on sexual harassment are cheaper and less resource-intensive than in-house ones, the risk you run is that they don’t always apply to your specific organization. For example, a sexual harassment course for an office-based organization will differ to one designed for a factory.

This disconnect then opens up the possibility of workers dismissing the training as not being realistic, not being helpful, or not teaching anything relevant to them.

Getting your CEO involved with an opening message is just one way to make your sexual harassment training more customized and personal. Where possible, assessments and role-playing scenarios should be specific to your company.

In addition, policies and procedures for remediation when harassment occurs should also be detailed and align with the company org structure. “Contact HR” doesn’t mean anything. “You can always call our HR director, Jennifer Maxwell, at this phone number” is more actionable.

“Policies should be very clear and explicit,” Guckenheimer says. “If it’s not clear what a victim of sexual harassment should do, your trainings aren’t going to be effective at all.”

Idea #4: Train workers on what they should be doing

Rightfully so, a lot of attention in sexual harassment training goes to defining, policing, and ultimately preventing bad behavior.

But there’s a flip side to this issue that’s not addressed as much as it should: The good behavior employees should be exhibiting instead.

Coupling your sexual harassment training with something called civility training—courses designed to establish expectations of civility and respect in the workplace—can fill this gap and provide a more holistic approach to tackling the problem of harassment. In civility training, workers learn how to:

  • Communicate respectfully with one another in-person and through email

  • Discuss individual differences related to diversity and cultural characteristics

  • Praise others, receive constructive feedback, and listen to complaints

  • Resolve conflict and be an effective supervisor

The EEOC admits that research on the effectiveness of civility training as a harassment prevention tool is scarce, but early signs are promising. After implementing a comprehensive civility training course, sexual harassment complaints at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) decreased by 70 percent.

Idea #5: Involve everyone (not just harassers and victims)

Eliminating harassment should be a company-wide effort, with every employee doing their part. The ugly truth when it comes to sexual harassment training though is this: Unless someone thinks they’re a harasser, or are a victim of harassment, they’re likely to tune out.

“‘Is this about me or is it a total waste of time?’ That’s the binary choice in [your employees’] heads. And you don’t ever want your employees to think your training is a waste of time. They’re never going to get engaged with it.”

Jason Meyer

president of ethics and compliance consultancy LeadGood, LLC

After finishing general training sessions, taking a role-based approach can combat disengagement rates and ensure everyone stays involved. Managers and executives should be trained on receiving complaints of sexual harassment, avoiding retaliation, making official reports, and keeping the workplace safe.

Another approach gaining popularity in the corporate world is giving rank-and-file workers bystander training to learn techniques to stop harassment when they see it.

This is where an LMS is incredibly valuable. With custom learner paths, you can assign roles to each of your trainees and assign different trainings to them based on those roles. Managers can get different courses than the HR team, for example. The end result is more employees walking away with new knowledge and tools.

Conclusion: It’s not just a training problem

Building your sexual harassment course with the intention of preventing harassment in the first place, rather than releasing your employer of liability after the fact, can signal that your organization is taking this issue seriously.

But at the end of the day, sexual harassment isn’t a training problem, it’s a culture problem. If you’re not addressing the systemic cultural issues of harassment in your business, all this work will be for naught.

With that in mind, here are some ideas for how you can address sexual harassment outside of training:

  • Promote more women. The numbers don’t lie. Companies with more women managers have less sexual harassment. As an added bonus, promoting more women helps reduce gender and pay inequality.

  • Fix your reporting processes. If the only avenue workers have for reporting harassment is going to their superior, and their superior is the one who’s harassing them, what option do they have then? Give multiple people and roles in your organization the responsibility for receiving reports to ensure every worker has options.

  • Start a book club. Guckenheimer says a book club is a great way to talk about issues of harassment in a more informal setting than training. Three great books to consider are:

    • “Speaking Truth to Power” by Anita Hill

    • “Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change” by Ellen Pao

    • “That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (And What Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together” by Joanne Lipman

Note: The applications selected in this article are examples to show a feature in context and are not intended as endorsements or recommendations. They have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable at the time of publication.