Is Your Sexual Harassment Training Outdated?

Sexual harassment in the workplace has always been a problem. However, social causes like the #MeToo movement have made it more visible in recent years. 

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), 7,609 sexual harassment claims were filed in 2018, the year after the #MeToo movement began. That’s a 13.6% increase from the previous year. What’s more, 78.2% of those charges were filed by women. 

Even the shift to at-home work in 2020 and 2021 didn’t curb this behavior. It simply forced it to change shape. Today’s workplace is still plagued by sexual harassment and other forms of discriminatory behavior. This may cause you to ask yourself if your sexual harassment training is outdated.

This is an important question, and shows that you’re on the right track in making sure your employees are cared for. To help answer this question, it is best to first gain a broader perspective by delving into the history of sexual harassment training and how it has evolved.

Focused employee sketching on a graphics tablet at her desk in a bustling office.

Sexual harassment could potentially occur in any workplace.

The History of Sexual Harassment Training

Sexual harassment can occur to anyone, regardless of gender, but the timeline of women’s experience is more clearly recorded, so this is what we will address here.

Women have experienced workplace harassment as long as they have been working outside the home. In the 19th century, most women worked as domestic servants, which exposed them to harassment and assault from their male employers. 

In the 20th century, women largely moved into sex-segregated industries where they dealt with domineering male managers and supervisors who continued the trend of harassment. 

When women began entering the mainstream workforce, sexual harassment did not decline. In fact, women were advised to quit their jobs if they could not endure the sexual advances and innuendo from bosses and male coworkers.

It was not until the 1970s that sexual harassment was recognized as a form of sex discrimination. Sexual harassment training debuted around this time and largely took the form of video content. 

This training did little to stem the tide of harassment. It also did not highlight how sexual harassment meshes with our culture, instead presenting it as a simple invasion of personal space that makes the victim feel uncomfortable.

Over the years, sexual harassment has shifted from bosses being “handsy” to other forms, such as proposing sex acts in exchange for professional advancement, having denigrating conversations, and relegating menial roles to women. Of course, physical contact is still a problem, but workplace harassment today includes a wide range of harmful behaviors.

As sexual harassment has evolved, so has the training that addresses it. What began as simple video-based training has expanded and diversified to better combat today’s various work environments. 

How Has Sexual Harassment Training Changed in Recent Years?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, video-based training became the norm in addressing the issue of workplace sexual harassment, as society began to come to terms with its sex discrimination problem. 

This training remained relatively unchanged for many years, but technology and social developments like the #MeToo movement prompted it to evolve. This evolution has taken multiple forms. 

In 2020, the world contracted as COVID-19 surged. Many employers reduced their workforces, while others went partially or totally remote. At first thought, this seemed like the good way to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace, but that’s not what happened.

Because employees no longer worked in person, harassment became virtual. Rather than in-person comments and behaviors, employees were now forced to deal with unwanted text chats and digital “cat calls”. At least one study found that in a survey of over 3,000 US employees, 25% of people experienced an increase in harassment.

Unfortunately, professional online platforms like Slack, Asana, and Trello now provide a new avenue for harassment to occur. Other tools of harassment in the digital workplace include phone calls, texts, video calls, and emails.

Sexual harassment does not have to include inappropriate physical contact. It can include inappropriate comments and even off-color jokes. It can include inappropriate GIFs sent via digital channels or discriminatory or sexual comments made within any digital medium. Even commenting on a coworker’s appearance during a video meeting can constitute sexual harassment if the comment is inappropriate.

In short, any behavior that creates a hostile or uncomfortable work environment can be considered sexual harassment, even if that environment is remote.

To address this evolving situation, new forms of training have been created, including online sexual harassment training. This kind of training offers many advantages when compared to simple video-based training.

With modern technology, it becomes possible to more effectively accomplish the following:

  • Analyze the cultural factors that normalize sexual harassment
  • Address myths and stereotypes about the sexes that often underlie harassment
  • Begin dismantling assumed gender-based roles in the workplace 
  • Build a better understanding of what sexual harassment is and why it’s wrong
  • Deliver interactive content to help trainees see the harassed person’s point of view
  • Create scenarios so learners can follow the branching consequences of harassment
  • Dig deeper into the kinds of harm caused by sexual harassment

Rather than one-sided video-based lessons, today’s organizations can use a broad range of media, including interactive lessons, animations, video, and gamified content to help build a deeper understanding in trainees.

How to Update Your Sexual Harassment Training for the Future of Work

Looking to update your training material? Many organizations have found themselves in a similar position. Whether you choose to outsource your needs or create eLearning content in-house, it’s important that it complies with sexual harassment training best practices

Not sure what those are or how they apply to the future of work? Let’s break things down.

One key point to remember is that training should be compliant with state and local law. Many states and even some cities have statutes that mandate sexual harassment training, or at least strongly encourage it. 

For example, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, and New York all currently require sexual harassment training. Chicago and New York City also have local mandates. Note that this list will change over time as more cities and states adopt additional sexual harassment laws.

There is currently no federal law stating that private organizations or state entities are required to provide employees with sexual harassment prevention training. It’s important that you understand the rules and regulations that apply in your organization’s specific situation. 

Another factor to consider when developing sexual harassment training is to ensure it complies with the robust guidelines provided by the EEOC. These cover all types of workplace harassment, not just sexual harassment.

While the language of the law does not state that employers are “required” to provide sexual harassment training, the EEOC states that all employers periodically “should provide [harassment prevention] training to all employees to ensure they understand their rights and responsibilities”.

Now, let’s break down the key aspects of quality sexual harassment training. 

Effective training material should be:

  • Thorough – Make sure that your training educates learners on the wide range of behaviors that constitute sexual harassment. Your content should also be updated for the modern remote and hybrid workplace. This includes covering harassment via text, video calls, emails, instant messenger, and other online communication platforms.
  • Detailed – Your content must dig deeper and showcase more than just the obvious examples of sexual harassment. In many cases, harassment is not blatant. Instead, it is often subtle and nebulous. Without understanding these “gray areas”, many employees may be unable to identify or help stop sexual harassment.
  • Gender Inclusive – It is critical that your training program covers all forms of harassment and sex discrimination, including making comments about someone’s gender identity or expression. Some employees may not even consider comments like these to be harassment, but with modernized training, we can change that.
  • Proactive – Your training content should explain strategies, solutions, and best practices for preventing and addressing incidents of sexual harassment. This includes providing a clear, secure way for employees to file complaints.

It’s important that employees understand that filing a sexual harassment allegation against a coworker, supervisor, or another member of the organization will not result in retaliation. Your training content should provide this assurance, along with a promise that all such reports will be investigated.

You organization’s sexual harassment training also needs to fully explain that any charges of sexual harassment that prove true will be handled immediately and appropriately. This could mean creating a correction plan for the offending individual or termination of their employment, depending on the severity of the situation and other mitigating factors.

The Takeaway

Sexual harassment remains a major concern for organizations large and small, across all industries. Remote and hybrid work environments have not slowed the problem, either. Instead, they have ushered in new avenues for harassment to occur. 

It’s important that all organizations have rigorous sexual harassment training in place to prepare and educate employees. Many organizations will find that they need to update their sexual harassment training to account for changes in behavior and new digital channels used in today’s workplaces. 

That leaves the question of whether you should develop your own training, or work with a trusted partner. Both are viable options, but developing your own training can be an expensive, time-consuming process, and there is no guarantee that the result will comply with current sexual harassment training best practices or EEOC guidelines.

For a growing number of organizations–whether small, moderately-sized, or at an enterprise level–the more efficient and affordable choice is to enlist a trusted partner.

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