Before Harvey Weinstein was exposed, before Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose were booted out in disgrace, before Senator Al Franken and Trump aide Rob Porter were forced to resign, the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) issued a scathing report on the state of sexual harassment in U.S. firms and the culpability of current training approaches.
The report, issued in 2016, came out a year before the sexual harassment “Silence Breakers” were Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and the “#MeToo” hashtag went viral. It was a foreshadowing that all was not well when it came to sexual harassment in the workplace.
The authors of that 2016 report said their impetus for taking a deep dive into the state of sexual harassment in US businesses was based on one startling and concerning fact: Despite 30 years of sexual harassment awareness and training, the number of cases being reported to the EEOC was not declining. The commission decided to do the assessment to find out what was causing the logjam.
While the report doesn’t single out training for the lack of progress, it does say the approach to training has not been effective.
“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 […] one size does not fit all: Training is most effective when tailored to the specific workforce and workplace and to different cohorts of employees. Finally, when trained correctly, middle-managers and first-line supervisors, in particular, can be an employer’s most valuable resource in preventing and stopping harassment.”
This failure is not for lack of dollars spent. In 2005, when California became the first state to require small businesses with at least 50 employees to provide sexual harassment training it was estimated that it would cost California businesses around $250 million dollars. While it is difficult to find exactly how much money has been spent on sexual harassment training, it’s safe to say over the past thirty years, billions have been invested.
The EEOC is not the only one wondering about the efficacy of sexual harassment training. In December 2017, Dr. Elizabeth Tippett, an associate law professor at the University of Oregon also published a study on sexual harassment training.
Dr. Tippett concludes that the majority of training is just “a hollow exercise in corporate compliance.” Her findings indicate that this training tends to emphasize that sexual harassment is bad for the bottom line because it impacts workplace productivity.
Tippett analyzed 74 current and archival training. She watched videos, and slideshows and reviewed written material. Tippett also critiqued the creative execution of these trainings saying that the scenarios are stilted and reflect outdated work environments. According to Tippett, the women are typically in low-ranking or secretarial roles and look more like outdated sitcoms than in real life. Her conclusion: pieces of training have come to “resemble a meal at McDonald’s.”
Big Mac’s notwithstanding, the evidence is overwhelming that over the past 30 years, most companies have treated sexual harassment training as a check-the-box compliance activity that had to be seen, but not discussed. It’s like a parent who hands their preteen child a book about sex, tells them to read it, and then says disingenuously, “You can ask me anything you want. Anything..” The kids know better. They never have any questions for their parents.
Like the preteen child, employees also infer a message from the sexual harassment training they are required to attend –sexual harassment is not something the company wants to think about, discuss, or deal with.
Of course, the “reckoning” that began in the fall of 2017 and continues today like a torrential downpour is changing that thinking. Companies now realize that Pandora’s box known as sexual harassment has been permanently pried open. As much as they may not want to, they have to deal with it.
The question organizations need to ask themselves is, “if our current approach to training is not effective, how do we change it?
1. Benchmark your corporate culture.
Find out what your employees really think. Do they know what the company’s policies on sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination are?
Do they believe the company lives that value or do they think the policy is just a platitude on a piece of paper treated as an insurance policy?
Have employees experienced harassment and/or discrimination and kept their mouths shut for fear of retaliation, shunning, or worse?
Only when you understand the real culture can you build a training program that will begin the shift to the desired culture.
2. Know your employees’ beliefs.
Without knowing how your employees view sexual harassment it’s difficult to provide training that will resonate. Understanding their attitudes is more important than ever because attitudes about sexual harassment are shifting. A November 2017 Gallup Poll found:
“…more Americans today consider sexual harassment in the workplace a major problem than did so two decades ago. Currently, 69% of U.S. adults, up from 50% in 1998, describe this type of harassment as a major problem. Women and men are about equally likely to take it this seriously — 73% vs. 66%, respectively.”
At the same time, there are other polls that indicate many are confused. According to the research firm the Barna Group, many men did not think that actions like flashing a woman or making comments about their bodies constituted sexual harassment. These men limited their definition of sexual harassment to physical acts.
Your employees’ beliefs are also influenced by their generation. Experts say that boomer women are more likely to believe it’s not worth it to make a big deal over “grabby gross guys.” Millennials and some Gen X women, on the other hand, think the opposite.
Before developing a training on how to prevent sexual harassment training organizations need to get a handle on their employees’ beliefs. They need to know that when a trainer says sexual harassment, employees do not have widely divergent definitions.
3. Customize. Customize. Customize.
As the EEOC report suggests “one size does not fit all: Training is most effective when tailored to the specific workforce and workplace, and to different cohorts of employees.”
This does not mean that all training has to follow one specific format. You can create a successful training by utilizing instructor-led, virtual instructor-led or eLearning.
The format is not necessarily the issue. The issue is to have training that is supported by policies, programs, and continued discussions.
4. Reframe the concept that the responsibility for reporting sexual harassment has to fall to the victim.
Train employees that as bystanders they need to find their voice when they see anything that looks or feels like harassment.
Maybe it’s an off-color remark said in a meeting. Maybe it’s a look that someone gives another team member. Studies show that sexual harassment declined in organizations that use the concept of “Bystander Empowerment.”
This includes a reduction in the military, college campuses, and nonprofits. It has not been widely adopted in corporate America. While there are several things that a bystander can do, one of their most important roles is to reach out to the person who is being harassed to see how they are doing.
Experts will tell you that most people who are experiencing sexual harassment at work feel very isolated and just by having someone else acknowledge that the harassment took place, makes a significant difference.
5. View training as a small part of shifting your culture.
It’s been said that Training is an event; Learning is a process. That is certainly true when it comes to sexual harassment training. For thirty some years, it’s primarily been an event.
Companies require employees to take the training because it protects the company from potential legal liability. The actual behavior employees witness when they are working in the workplace may not match the lessons taught in training.
Employees know that legally the courts favor the employer. According to a report on NPR, “The standard for harassment under the law is high, and only an estimated 3 percent to 6 percent of the cases ever make it to trial […] Legal experts say the high dismissal rate of sexual harassment cases also has a chilling effect.”
On the other hand, when employees believe that senior leadership is committed to creating a better work environment, they are more likely to retain the information shared in a training. Employees need to see that the company believes and plans to live the values that the training promotes. Employees need proof that it is safe and celebrated to speak out when they believe sexual harassment is occurring.
Ultimately, the success of any sexual harassment training program depends on the commitment and actions of senior leadership.