Viewpoint: Tips for Creating Virtual Anti-Harassment Training During the Pandemic

By Christina Ro-Connolly and Vida Thomas August 25, 2020
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Many California employers must provide sexual-harassment-prevention training by Jan. 1, 2021, but the ongoing coronavirus crisis may cause employers to rethink their strategy and move to virtual training.

California law requires employers with five or more employees to provide at least two hours of "classroom or other effective interactive training and education" on sexual-harassment prevention to all supervisory employees and at least one hour of such training to all nonsupervisory employees in the state.

In this current climate, when many workplaces have become virtual in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person training is often impractical and even problematic with respect to employee health and safety. Providing "other effective interactive training" under these circumstances can be challenging, and employers may have a difficult time complying with the statute. 

That's why training providers are reworking their in-person trainings and providing live virtual sessions, in English and Spanish. As many workers are now accustomed to using applications such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, GoToMeeting and Google Hangouts, the transition to conducting interactive training through these applications may be smoother than anticipated.

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Maintaining compliance with state law is still possible, despite any perceived limitations of a virtual setting. In fact, some aspects of a virtual platform are more beneficial. For example, participants can more easily submit anonymous questions.

Here are some practical tips to consider using when developing your virtual anti-harassment program:

  • Involve the audience early and often. Your virtual audience is bombarded with distractions. Because the training is not face-to-face, you are competing with the participants' immediate environment and competing priorities on their computer screens. We like to start out with a hypothetical that will get people's attention. Then we use the following features generously to keep them engaged.
  • Use the screen-share function. Nearly every platform offers a screen-share function, allowing the presenters to share visuals related to the training, such as a PowerPoint presentation. Also, Zoom offers a remote-control feature, allowing multiple trainers to manipulate the slides, allowing more than one person to conduct the training. In fact, as a baseline, we have found that the virtual setting calls for more than one trainer in order to be more effective for engagement and interaction. The two trainers can role-play and bounce ideas between each other.
  • Consider role-playing. One benefit to having multiple trainers is the use of role-playing, which is still possible to do on a virtual platform and is particularly effective in eliciting discussion and questions. Developing fact patterns and having the trainers play out those fact patterns is a dynamic way to keep the audience engaged in a virtual setting.  
  • Use the raise hand and chat functions. Because California law calls for the training to be interactive, and because managing discussions over video conferencing platforms can be difficult, the "raise hand" and chat functions are critical to ensure that all those who wish to participate in the discussion may do so, while still maintaining an organized format. Have the trainer who is not actively presenting monitor the chat box for questions and discussion points so that one person is not distracted with multitasking. We suggest that participants choose the anonymous feature so that they can present questions and comments anonymously, which is easier for many people.
  • Create variety with the polling function. Nothing is more boring than listening to a presenter talk nonstop, and it's no fun for the presenter, either. Most of the online platforms offer a polling feature that allows the trainer to pose multiple choice and true/false questions. We use the feature to present hypothetical scenarios that test the attendees' retention of the information presented. Because attendee answers are anonymous, the audience is less inhibited and more likely to participate. Using polling questions periodically is a way to ensure that the audience is paying attention and staying engaged.
  • Decide if breakout rooms will enhance the experience. One useful teaching technique when conducting in-person training is to break the audience into small groups and have them work together on a particular task. We have found that working in small groups makes participation less intimidating and keeps participants engaged. Some online platforms—such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams—offer breakout rooms, which permit the trainer to split the participants into smaller groups, either automatically or manually. After "sending" the participants into these smaller groups, the trainer can "visit" each group to check on their progress and offer insights.   
  • Remember to follow up. If you use the chat feature to answer participant questions or share additional resources, send out a transcript of the questions and answers after the training. The audience will appreciate having this information handy for future reference. However, be sure to review the transcript prior to distribution, in case you need to remove any private conversations that made their way into the record.

Although COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders will eventually end, virtual training is here to stay and offers a less expensive, convenient and efficient way to train large groups. Although there are many unique benefits to in-person sexual-harassment-prevention training, virtual technology is now sophisticated enough to provide a more engaging, interactive experience in compliance with California law. 

Christina Ro-Connolly and Vida Thomas are attorneys with the Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer in Berkeley, Calif. 

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