You’re finishing up your workplace harassment training and everyone signed your company’s anti-harassment policy. No #MeToo issues for you, right? While you’ve done enough to comply with the administrative requirements, your training has likely done very little to actually prevent harassment from happening in your workplace. Why? Two reasons.
Problem #1: You’re solving for the wrong problem.
In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) assembled a task force of attorneys, professors, advocacy groups, and labor groups to better understand workplace harassment. In 2016 they published their report. Turns out the majority workplace harassment training fails to address most common forms of harassment. For example, the task force asked a random sample of women if in the past they’ve been sexually harassed, 25% indicate being victim. When asked if they’v been subjected to sexually-based behaviors such as unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion, the percentage jumps to 40%. When asked about “gender harassment” however, a term used to describe gender based hostile behaviors devoid of sexual interest, an astonishing 60% of women indicate having been victim to such kind of harassment. When it comes to sexual harassment training however, we tend to focus on the more traditional forms of harassment such as quid pro quo. These types of harassment are less prominent in our workplaces. The report suggests that training often targets the wrong audience. We know very few victims report harassment, the EEOC estimates 25%. Harassers are of course not self-reporting. Yet we tend to direct our harassment training to victims and perpetrators, failing to incorporate a bystander component. The EEOC recommends a path modeled after the “It’s On Us” campaign, an endeavor launched in high school and college campuses to end sexual violence. The program incorporates bystander training, empowering everyone to be part of the solution. While not much data exists on the success rate of bystander training in workplaces, it’s clearly an “out of the box” response following decades of ineffective training primarily tailored to harassers and the harassed.
Problem #2: Your content is generic.
Quality training can be time-consuming, and expensive. But…so is workplace harassment. Was your training designed specifically for your company? How about your industry, or employee demographics? Is the facilitator familiar with your company? The more customized the training, the more effective it will be as it should be an extension of your culture. While most workplace cultures reject harassment, there are still unique aspects of workplace harassment which training should address. For example, how companies define harassment can be very different as some use the legal definition and others operate under a broader definition. I once participated in a workplace harassment training conducted by a corporate attorney for a news station. As the facilitator, she reviewed with us the legal definition of harassment, the company policy (straight from the handbook), and ended by discouraging everyone from engaging in inappropriate conversations that may be offensive to others (like sex, race, etc). Remember, she was conducting training for a newsroom, full of reporters and producers. What news stories don’t have some controversial element touching on race, color, religion, sex or national origin? This training was clearly designed to fulfill compliance obligations, not change behaviors. She failed to provide employees with a valuable experience or incorporate stimulating content that would have benefited the company. An effective workplace training should: 1) set employee expectations on a company’s approach to harassment in the workplace, 2) explain the employee’s role in enhancing, upholding, and/or protecting the culture against harassment, and 3) educate & encourage employees of tools & resources available to them to keep their workplace free from harassment. So, find unique content that will benefit your team. Highlight some lesser known, but thought-provoking harassment cases that really challenge the traditional concept of harassment. Give employees tools to report concerning conduct without fear of retaliation such as an employee survey or an anonymous feedback reporting tool. Although we all prefer employees to be comfortable reporting concerns openly, unconcerned with retaliation, don’t take an employee’s need for anonymity personally. The EEOC report cites a 2003 study in which 75% employees who spoke out against a company faced some sort of retaliation. Even if your company is genuine in its investigative efforts, employees may have experienced some sort of retaliation with past companies, leading them to be a bit cautious.
Going into 2019, revamp your training and invest in better tools. Employees will likely always dislike the idea of anti-harassment training. Employees however are typically excited to learn how your company values their concerns and feedback. They value a company’s efforts to make sure they are happy, healthy, successful, and safe (physically and emotionally) at work. Harassment simply can’t survive in an engaged, supportive culture.
Teresa Marzolph is the Founder and Head People Strategist for Culture Engineered believing valued employees produce valuable results. In her HR and culture career she’s helped both small businesses and large corporations attract, develop, and retain top industry talent.