“Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool,” the EEOC said in a report last year
It’s time to give training some teeth.
The recent downfall of dozens of prominent men amid sexual abuse allegations has prompted many companies to revisit how they handle workplace harassment. But a 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force report painted a grim portrait: Nearly a third of about 90,000 EEOC employment discrimination charges in fiscal year 2015 included a workplace harassment allegation; meanwhile, “much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool — it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.”
Only California, Connecticut and Maine require companies to administer harassment training, but just over three-quarters of companies offer some form of harassment training, a compliance firm exec told Marketplace. Here’s what experts said a smart, effective harassment training program might do:
Explore gray areas, not just the black and white. Move beyond trite scenarios to examine nuance, context, ambiguous lines between professional and social relationships, and the roles of power and consent, said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, founder of the diversity solutions firm ReadySet. Focus on actions instead of people, she added: “When we focus on people, it can be easy to believe that there’s one kind of person who’s a harasser and one kind of person who’s a victim of harassment … We want people to focus on the behaviors so that they don’t get caught up in saying, ‘Is so-and-so capable of doing this?’”
Be interactive. Training should be a discussion, not a lecture, said David Lewis, CEO of the HR consulting firm OperationsInc. Lewis and his team run clients through a series of workplace scenarios and solicit further examples that employees feel might be relevant to their workplace. “Trainers relish the ‘What about this?’ and ‘What about that?’ questions because it helps further reinforce those points,” he said.
Drive home that harassment is a form of discrimination. “Current trainings do tend to portray harassment as a violation of company policy rather than a form of discrimination,” said University of Oregon professor Elizabeth Tippett, whose recent analysis of 74 harassment trainings spanning 1980 to 2016 found that many tended to “gloss over the discrimination-based origins and purpose of harassment law” that might serve as a “moral anchor” for training. Training also places an “overemphasis on sexual conduct,” she added: A majority of EEOC harassment charges deal with race, age, disability and other bases.
Customize training to the workplace culture. “A hypothetical (scenario) is much more useful if it reflects what’s actually happening in the office,” said Hutchinson, who tailors training not only by industry but to individual companies. Adapt training to employees’ learning preferences, Tippett advised: Do they want online training or an in-person, discussion-based seminar?
Take the audience seriously. “Treat this as a proper form of persuasive messaging: What do people actually find persuasive? What hits home for them?” Tippett said. Just like an anti-smoking PSA might enlist several different approaches to persuasion — health risks, societal norms, Big Tobacco — harassment training should invest in understanding what might change employees’ attitudes and behaviors.
Train higher-ups. “The most important people to train are the more senior people — supervisors, managers, directors — because they are going to be setting the tone,” employment attorney Amy Oppenheimer said. “If they don’t walk the walk and talk the talk, then there’s no reason to think that everybody else will follow.” Senior-level managers should send a positive message by attending their employees’ training, Lewis added, and staying attentive and engaged.
Make it personal. While training managers, Lewis finds it effective to lay out the consequences — job loss, litigation, becoming unemployable — of mishandling sexual harassment complaints. “Appealing to people for doing the right thing is not nearly as impactful, in my view, as scaring the bejeezus out of them,” he said.
Take a climate survey every year or two, depending on the organization. An anonymous survey gauging employees’ experiences with harassment — and possible attempts at recourse — can help inform training and develop hypothetical scenarios that raise the same issues, Oppenheimer said.
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