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Is Your Sexual-Harassment Training Behind the Times?

A woman wearing glasses is sitting at a desk with a laptop.

​When employees began working remotely in 2020, the belief was that incidents of sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying would likely decrease as a result of less in-person contact in the workplace. But a number of studies show that rather than dropping precipitously, such misbehavior simply took new forms as remote workers used online platforms to harass or abuse co-workers.

A study by technology provider TalentLMS and the Purple Campaign, a nonprofit focused on workplace harassment issues, found that 30 percent of employees said they'd experienced unwelcome behavior via text messages, e-mail, video calls and other online platforms since the beginning of the pandemic. Some of that online harassment was targeted toward their gender identity expression, the research shows.

A November 2021 study by consulting firm Korn Ferry also found that almost 60 percent of respondents said their colleagues were ruder to one another now than before the pandemic—with 75 percent saying they'd considered quitting due to an uncivil co-worker or boss.

As remote work continues, experts say training involving awareness of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) topics, as well as prevention of sexual harassment and discrimination, needs to reflect those shifts if it's to remain relevant and credible.

Many HR functions are turning to new digital learning approaches to keep pace with these workplace changes and deliver training that's more effective at preventing misconduct and reducing the threat of legal action from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Sexual-Harassment Training Goes Digital

Despite progress made by initiatives such as #MeToo, cases of sexual harassment continue to make the news. McDonald's, for example, announced it would require sexual-harassment training for all of its employees in 2022—including, for the first time, franchisee locations—following years of widespread complaints of harassment in its restaurants and its former CEO being fired for sexual misconduct.

Other recent notable harassment cases come from the NFL, which fined the Washington Football Team nearly $10 million for fostering a culture of sexual harassment, and female employees who filed lawsuits against carmaker Tesla, claiming they were sexually harassed by co-workers.

HR leaders are turning to next-generation digital training approaches to help prevent such misbehavior. Two methods gaining currency are use of virtual reality (VR) simulations to help employees build empathy and video-based storytelling that allows trainees to practice intervening in challenging workplace scenarios.

The TalentLMS and Purple Campaign study found that 72 percent of responding organizations now deliver sexual-harassment training via digital platforms.

Experts say digital learning has several advantages when used either in tandem with or as a replacement for in-person training. VR training in particular enables use of more realistic, nuanced and emotionally impactful learning scenarios, allowing employees to practice and reflect on responses in situations where harassment or bias is occurring in judgment-free ways.

Digital methods also ensure more consistency in training content delivery and can make it easier to keep records of employee training attendance should there be an EEOC investigation or lawsuit.

A 2020 study by PwC of training delivered in 12 PwC locations compared the impact of three different learning modalities—classroom, e-learning and VR—and found VR learners were more confident in applying what they were taught and more emotionally connected to learning content. It also found that VR training can be more cost-effective when delivered at scale.

As the once-prohibitive costs of using VR hardware and software drop and more studies show its effectiveness, HR functions are using the technology at higher rates. Major providers of VR-based sexual-harassment training include Mursion, Vantage Point and Praxis Labs.

Mark Atkinson, CEO of San Francisco-based Mursion, said VR gives learners the ability to practice challenging conversations around harassment or bias in a psychologically safe environment.

"Learners invariably make mistakes when discussing these difficult topics, but the technology allows the learner to pause the conversation and start over, having received constructive feedback from a specialist who manages the simulations," Atkinson said.

In one DE&I training simulation that Mursion uses, a senior employee is asked to support and model inclusive behavior for a female colleague who has just announced her marriage to her wife. Atkinson said such simulations give learners a "brave space" to practice interpersonal skills.

"A brave space is one in which a person is uncomfortable enough to be authentically challenged but supported enough to try new things and apply skills that may not be well-developed," Atkinson said.

Breathing Life into Compliance Training

Another company with a "digital first" approach to sexual-harassment training is Traliant, a learning platform provider in Manhattan Beach, Calif. Traliant built its approach with the notion that compliance training rarely keeps learners on the edge of their seats.

"When companies make big statements about DE&I but then roll out the same old training they've used for years, it breeds cynicism and can backfire," said Andrew Rawson, co-founder and chief learning officer for Traliant.

The company uses an episode-based video training approach that borrows best practices from the likes of Netflix and news show formats. The videos depict often-dramatic, real-world situations with a variety of possible choices and outcomes for trainees, according to Rawson. Employees identify parts of scenarios where harassment or bias might occur and make decisions about the path characters should take, with right and wrong ways to handle such situations clearly delineated.

"We show the consequences of not speaking up when you see harassment or bias happening in the workplace and also what kind of reaction you can expect when you do speak up," Rawson said. "Sexual-harassment training needs to make an emotional connection with learners to create any lasting behavioral change."

Best Practices in Harassment, DE&I Training

While the delivery method for sexual-harassment training is important, so too is the focus of the content. The TalentLMS and Purple Campaign study identified these best practices and lessons learned in content strategies:

  • Training should address the growing issue of online harassment. A significant number of respondents in the study (38 percent) said they'd received no training on the issue of harassment that occurs via text, e-mail, Zoom, social media or other online platforms.
  • Training should be gender-inclusive. The study found significant differences in how men and women define harassment, especially when it comes to gender identity issues. While 73 percent of women in the study considered making comments about someone's gender identity or expression a form of harassment, only 47 percent of men believed that such comments constituted harassment.
  • Training should cover gray areas. Survey respondents said the training they received too often presented only obvious, black-and-white examples of sexual harassment rather than more nebulous or subtle scenarios. "In reality, sexual harassment is often much harder to identify due to the ambiguous gray areas that occur in real life," the study authors wrote.

Dave Zielinski is principal of Skiwood Communications, a business writing and editing company in Minneapolis.

Need help finding harassment-prevention resources? Find training, books and more in the SHRMStore. 


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