5 Ideas for More Effective Sexual Harassment Training

on February 12, 2018

After two high-profile Supreme Court cases in 1998 brought much-needed national attention to the issue of workplace sexual harassment, 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.

If you’ve been following the news at all though, or been on the unfortunate end of a crass comment or inappropriate gesture, you know these trainings haven’t made harassment go away. If anything, it’s only gotten worse. According to a recent poll by ABC News, 64 percent of Americans say workplace sexual harassment is a serious problem—17 points higher than when this poll was last conducted in 2011.

In the era of #MeToo and #TIMESUP, companies need to do better. So how can your sexual harassment training go beyond checking a compliance box to actually promoting a safer workplace for your employees?

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

Idea #1: Start With a Message From Your CEO

First impressions matter. When your employees get the email that it’s time for sexual harassment training, are you sending the message that your company takes this issue seriously?

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 other 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 the Alpha and the Omega here. 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

States like California and Connecticut require 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, knocking out 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 the information in the training 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.

You can mix in-person classroom sessions with online modules (i.e., blended learning), or deliver training in different formats, such as videos or assessments, which will stick better with some employees more than others.

You can add different content formats to your courses in Absorb LMS
The most significant thing breaking up your sexual harassment training sessions brings though 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 and 3) manufacturing.

Sexual harassment charges by industry, from 2005 through 2015

Sexual harassment charges by industry, from 2005 through 2015. Source: Center for American Progress

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. 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 Too

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 doing 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 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

That’s Meyer’s theory about training, and research supports it. A 2017 study found that trainings that focus solely on harassers or victims are more often rejected by workers because they believe those labels don’t apply to them.

Taking a role-based approach after finishing general training sessions can combat this and ensure everyone stays involved. Managers and executives should get their own training 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 HR, 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.

Implementing the ideas featured here can better engage workers in training, improve their knowledge retention and give them strategies for curbing harassing behavior moving forward.

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 nought.

With that in mind, here are some effective ways you can address sexual harassment outside of training:

  • 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 and “That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (And What Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together” by Joanne Lipman.
  • 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 do they do then? Give multiple people and roles in your organization the responsibility for receiving reports to ensure every worker has options.

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