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Changing Expectations on Sexual Harassment Policies and Training

A newspaper with the word for harassment written on it.

​As SHRM-certified HR professionals in the era of the #MeToo movement, we have the tremendous responsibility and obligation to design policies and educate our workforces on sexual harassment, retaliation, bullying, hostile work environments and more. 

In New York state, a great emphasis is on sexual harassment policies, complaint procedures and workplace training for all organizations. New York City has even higher expectations related to sexual harassment prevention training and posting requirements. California recently changed its laws and regulations related to workplace training about sexual harassment as well. We will continue to see evolving laws in this area.  

But what if you have employees who become triggered by sitting through these training sessions? The law tells us we have to legally train all employees in the workforce. For employees who have been through a traumatic experience related to sexual harassment or sexual assault, the training can do more harm than good. What we can do to ensure that we provide a safe environment for these employees while following the law? 

The SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge (SHRM BoCK) can help us find solutions while ensuring legal compliance. Below are three recommendations for HR professionals to consider when communicating legally required training requirements, while providing a safe workplace for all employees. The SHRM behavioral competency of Communication is key, plus the other guidance as described.  

  1. Conduct research and seek guidance. Legal research is never easy, but it is a great skill that all certified HR professionals should possess. Review the laws and regulations at the local, state and federal level. In New York, for instance, state regulations do not address the question specifically; all employees must be trained.

    If, as a certified HR professional, you cannot find the answer, ask an attorney or a fellow HR professional for guidance--perhaps at a local HR association chapter meeting. Contact the government and ask for clarification. The competencies of Leadership & Navigation and Relationship Management, along with the HR Expertise technical competency, particularly the Workplace Knowledge Domain, require us to be consistent in commitment and practice.

  2. Provide reasonable accommodation. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is classified as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. If sexual harassment-related training is causing significant issues with some employees, making a reasonable accommodation might be an option for their situation. Be aware of state laws on accommodation, which can help us find a reasonable solution while ensuring a legally compliant process. Utilize the Ethical Practice, Consultation and Critical Evaluation competencies to ensure legal compliance in a welcoming organizational culture.

  3. Tailor training. Know your organization and workforce. Begin training by providing information on your organization's employee assistance program or counseling service. Provide options if an employee needs to step out of the room. Sexual harassment policies and training are important to all organizations; tailoring communications to individuals who might have PTSD will make a difference.

    Communicate expectations consistently throughout your organizations, regardless of any modifications to training, policies, complaint procedures, postings, investigation processes and retaliation. Consultation, Relationship Management and HR Expertise will provide the knowledge, skills and abilities to recognize and address all concerns. 

I have run into these situations throughout my career as an HR consultant. I wrote this article because these events will continue to occur. This is an important topic for every organization, and one in which SHRM-credentialed HR professionals can truly make a difference in their organizations by utilizing the knowledge and skills learned throughout the certification and continuing education processes. 

Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP, owner of Burr Consulting, LLC, Elmira, N.Y., is an HR consultant, an assistant professor at Elmira College, and an on-call mediator and fact-finder for the New York State Public Employment Relations Board. He holds master's degrees in business administration and in human resources & industrial relations, and a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt.


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