Is the sexual harassment training program in your workplace actually producing results? Or are your employees simply sitting through it to check off a box for a yearly training requirement? Do you even have a training plan in place?
For some skills training sessions, like Excel or public speaking, even if the training is poor or employees make mistakes, they can either retrain or learn from the experience. But getting sexual harassment prevention and reporting wrong can ruin lives, spark legal action and shatter workplace trust.
A study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EOCC) found that upwards of 75% of women have experienced some kind of sexual harassment in the workplace – and 90% of those women never filed reports.
Yet despite such high stakes around sexual harassment in the workplace, employee trainings – from online tutorials to in-person sessions – often don’t produce desired outcomes. Ultimately, the objective of the training is to prevent sexual harassment from happening. If it does, you want to make sure your employees feel safe reporting, and that the right actions will be taken.
But from a big picture standpoint, the goal of your training program should be to make awareness and prevention of sexual harassment part of the workplace culture, so that your employees know how to notice deviant behavior and are unafraid to speak up about it. But that unfortunately isn’t always the end result, and your training may be failing your employees rather than helping them.
Here are some ways your sexual harassment training is failing – and how to fix it.
1. Your training is one and done.
Sexual harassment training often becomes a yearly task all employees must complete, whether they watch a video or attend a session. Because management may not cultivate the buy-in, employees may rush through it or tune it out so they can simply check off the box on their yearly compliance. Managers may have the same outlook: If they can just get everyone to sign off, they’ll be compliant for another year. This, unfortunately, communicates that protecting your employees is a chore.
Instead, have management flip the narrative and heavily communicate the importance of sexual harassment training. Aim to have more frequent training sessions and follow-ups throughout the year so that it’s viewed as essential and stays top-of-mind – whether it be online sessions, conversations at staff meetings or during manager/report check-ins.
2. There are no clear definitions or steps.
One of the goals of sexual harassment training is to identify harassment or abuse in the workplace, prevent it before it happens, and if it does happen, get the employee to the right resources to help them. But your training may not have clear definitions of what sexual harassment is, or not lay out a clear path of how to report it. The EOCC report found that many women didn’t know how to recognize they were being harassed when they experienced it.
Make sure that your training clearly defines terms like “sexual harassment,” “unwelcome conduct,” “consent” and more so that your employees know how to recognize sexual harassment when they see it. Additionally, clearly communicate phone numbers and contacts so those who have experienced sexual harassment know how to report it.
3. Your training relies only on facts and doesn’t include stories or situations.
Knowing definitions is key for sexual harassment prevention, but just educating your employees on definitions and laws will only educate them in facts — and not give them the ability to recognize situations where sexual harassment may occur.
Instead, make sure your training contains examples and scenarios to show when and how harassment, unwanted conduct and uncomfortable situations can arise. This may include written stories, videos, interactive online scenarios or even role playing. The important thing is to give your employees a chance to see how sexual harassment plays out in the workplace – so they can immediately recognize it when they see it.
4. Your training is too out-of-the-box.
Another way your training might be failing is that it doesn’t address what’s specifically going on in your workplace. Purchasing an out-of-the-box training or bringing in an outside consultant might help a bit, but if the content of that training doesn’t “look like” your workplace, your employees may have a hard time staying engaged.
If you do contract out, spend time evaluating different training programs that match your workplace demographics and scenarios (for example, young tech start-up workplaces look very different from large financial services companies). Or consider creating your own to address the specific needs of your workplace.
5. There’s no bystander intervention training.
Many times, sexual harassment training focuses solely on the harassment situation, leaving responsibility solely up to the person who is the target of the harassment. But if there are others around who witness this behavior, you want to empower them to speak up.
Make bystander intervention training a priority in your workplace, so that everyone knows that they need to play a role in speaking up and stepping in. Bystander intervention also cultivates a culture of accountability, in which it’s up to everyone to keep their colleagues safe.
6. You’re not normalizing the conversation.
If the conversation around sexual harassment and unwanted conduct only happens during an annual training, then you’re failing your employees by not making the conversation – and their safety – an important part of the workplace, every day.
As difficult or sensitive as it might be, work on integrating the conversation into staff meetings and team check-ins in order to normalize sexual harassment awareness. The more it becomes a part of your workplace culture, the more comfortable your employees will feel speaking up.
7. There’s no measurement, data or updates.
If employees are never presented with the status of their workplace in regard to sexual harassment issues, reporting or even how safe they feel, then keeping vigilant about sexual harassment may ease – which is certainly what you don’t want. It’s dangerous to have a workplace where sexual harassment is pervasive, yet no one knows it’s happening.
Provide employees with as much data as you legally can, and as stated above, continue normalizing the conversation around the workplace and be vocal about encouraging reporting. If someone sees that others are coming forward and reporting, they may do so as well.
8. You don’t encourage reporting.
If you provide your employees with frequent, engaging training, yet maintain a workplace where anyone who comes forward to report is punished for it – whether that means losing a job, getting transferred, being the subject of gossip or by not being believed – then you’ve failed your employees. Additionally, implementing sexual harassment training in the workplace only to save money on the costs of allegations is missing the point.
Create a safe work environment that encourages reporting rather than punishes it, and put your employees and their wellbeing first. This also means training everyone all the way up the ladder on the importance of supporting victims of sexual harassment, in order to create a work environment that weeds it out.
9. You’re not creating a culture that seeks to stop sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment training doesn’t work if it’s a once-a-year, siloed session done simply to check off a box, if no one ever talks about it, or if everyone is indifferent or punitive when issues are brought forth.
What does work is developing a culture that promotes respecting and watching out for each other, awareness and vigilance of how sexual harassment can occur in the workplace, and empowerment for everyone to call it out or stop it when they see it. Creating a culture that encourages reporting without retaliation and a culture of psychological safety will go much further in protecting your workplace and helping your employees thrive because they feel safe.
Change Is Possible
It may take some work and difficult conversations, but it’s possible to change the culture and approach to sexual harassment in the workplace. Start by revamping your approach to sexual harassment training in order to make sure that everyone is being taken care of and feels safe.