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Sexual Harassment Prevention Training Should Involve Real Conversations

A group of people sitting at a desk in an office.

Isaac E. Dixon was conducting training about sexual harassment for an all-male audience when he realized they were no longer paying attention. So the associate vice president for HR at Oregon's Portland State University gave them an assignment: Each man was to ask the women in his life if they had ever experienced sexual harassment and, if so, to tell their story.

The next day, many of the men wept as they shared the stories they'd heard.

"Several men talked about the anger they felt, but they also realized how their own behavior had fed into the culture that the women in their lives had to deal with," Dixon told SHRM Online in an e-mail.

As media attention and public outcry shine a spotlight on sexual harassment in the workplace, it's a lesson for employers scrambling to address the issue: Make sexual harassment education hit home.

So, are employers stepping up training? It depends on who you ask.

Only 10 percent of 1,512 adults working in the U.S. said their organizations added more anti-sexual harassment training or resources since senior leaders in multiple organizations were publicly accused of sexual harassment and the #MeToo and Time's Up movements started. Findings are from a Harris poll conducted in February and March.

Asked what their organizations have done in response to increased media and public attention on sexual harassment, most respondents (18 percent) said they were being reminded by their employer of existing sexual harassment training or resources. 

But nearly one-third (32 percent) of 1,078 Society for Human Resource Management members surveyed in January said their organizations have made changes to sexual harassment prevention training in the last 12 months. The most common changes: adding a workplace-civility component, customizing training, and including the training with onboarding activities for all staff. Another 22 percent said their organizations plan to make changes to their training this year.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]

The answer also may depend on where employers are located. Training requirements are part of sweeping anti-harassment legislation in New York, SHRM Online reported in April. Employers there must implement annual interactive training by Oct. 9 and include education on bystander intervention. The law stipulates mandatory training for employers with 15 or more workers—including interns—in New York City.

Employers in California have been revisiting their harassment prevention programs, SHRM Online reported in May. One bill would require employers with five or more workers to provide at least two hours of sexual harassment training to all employees by 2020 and once every two years thereafter.

The American Psychological Association (APA) in Washington, D.C., says that there is scant research on the type of training programs that can help prevent or reduce sexual harassment and that ineffective training may exacerbate the problem. Training must be aligned with, and support, the attitudes and behaviors the employer is trying to promote, according to David W. Ballard, director of APA's Center for Organizational Excellence. The APA recommends employers create policies that clearly communicate that harassment is not tolerated and that perpetrators will be subject to discipline.

Employers have typically relied on compliance-based training to limit the organization's liability. Doing so illustrates they have taken reasonable steps to educate employees about what is considered unlawful sexual harassment and to ensure workers are familiar with company procedures to report violations.

But that approach doesn't change employees' behavior, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). SHRM Online has collected the following tips to help HR professionals create robust training on the topic.

Rebrand the Training

Don't label the training initiatives as "sexual harassment" prevention, said Alison Davis, J.D., shareholder at Littler Mendelson P.C. law firm in Washington, D.C. Instead, reframe it so the focus is on creating a respectful workplace.

"People are getting tired of being told they have to go for [sexual harassment prevention] training," she said at the annual conference of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management in May.

Appeal to a diverse audience with scenarios that include same-sex harasser and victim, as well as female managers as the harassers, she suggested. Focus on behaviors you want to encourage, such as discussing what a respectful and inclusive environment means to the participants, instead of just behaviors employees should avoid.

Use Separate Training for Managers 

While all employees—including interns—should receive training, there should be separate programs for managers and nonmanagers, Kathy Ruffino, SHRM-SCP, told the California Subcommittee on Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response in March.

"As much as you may want to create a unified program, managers have special responsibilities and need to be educated on these responsibilities in addition to the information provided to all employees," she told California lawmakers in a prepared statement.

One option is to use the EEOC's two harassment prevention programs that debuted in October—"Leading for Respect" for supervisors and "Respect in the Workplace" for employees—that are the outgrowth of the agency's Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.

"We know that workplace incivility often acts as a 'gateway drug' to workplace harassment," said Chai Feldblum, EEOC commissioner, in a news release. She co-authored the EEOC study that led to the new training it offers to employers.

Incorporate Bystander Training 

The EEOC advised employers to include training on bystander intervention.

Educating employees on how to speak up when they witness sexual harassment may help increase a sense of accountability for maintaining a safe office environment, the APA said.

Employers are kidding themselves if they think that training isn't needed because they have not received any complaints about sexual harassment. That usually means the organization's complaint process is not working, said Kelly Marinelli, J.D., SHRM-SCP, principal consultant at People Strategy at Solve HR Inc. in Boulder, Colo.

Employees are frequently aware of harassment problems before management is but often fail to report them, Ruffino said. Workers may be unaware of the reporting process, assume someone else will speak up, or be reluctant to become involved.

"Employees need to be trained on their roles as bystanders and the avenues they have available to them for reporting any workplace harassment," stated Ruffino, trainer and consultant for Train Me Today in Huntington Beach, Calif.

That should include managers, Marinelli said. 

If a manager witnesses inappropriate behavior and does nothing, "you're basically sending a message to all of the others on your team that you're condoning it."

Encourage Participation 

Training should be tailored to the specific workplace and workforce and involve in-person training. If that's not feasible, there should still be opportunities for participation, according to the EEOC.

Some companies use a blended approach, Ruffino noted. It includes both in-person and online training. The online component, she said, can send a uniform message across the entire organization and reach employees whose schedules make it difficult to take in-person training during normal business hours.

Marinelli said interactive education helps workers feel comfortable talking about an uncomfortable topic. It can be conducted online or in-person to talk about gray areas, such as comments among co-workers that happen outside of the workplace.

Train in Short Chunks of Time 

Ruffino suggested offering 15-minute microlearning training sessions every quarter. One session, for example, could cover implicit bias and another could address creating a culture of open communication.

If this is done as online training, though, "the challenge is going to be, are they just clicking through a bunch of [computer] screens?"

Involve Senior Leaders 

Leaders must endorse a respectful culture by their actions, including how they treat the training, said Ruffino. She has CEOs introduce her training classes to communicate to workers how important the training is. When senior staff evade training, citing workload, scheduling conflicts or other reasons, "employees not only dismiss the training as well, but may not take harassing conduct in the workplace seriously, either." 

Shoo the Monster Away 

Ruffino said HR's role is to make sure training is not viewed as "a big scary monster."

"We're creating that respectful workplace" by focusing training on real conversations instead of "legal 'thou shall nots,' " she said. "We need to be ahead of this. We need to be the ones taking care of our company culture, our human capital … We're supposed to do what's right."




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