Rethinking Workplace Harassment Training

By Sarah Crawford

Too often, workplace harassment training follows a dated approach that focuses on legal standards. When training is offered, many employers offer “check-the-box” training intended to limit liability for harassment.

While it is important for managers to understand their legal obligations and for employees to understand their legal rights, new approaches to training provide more effective solutions. Yes, managers and employees must understand policies and procedures, but real change starts with organizations and individuals taking concrete, effective steps to create a culture of respect and civility that can prevent small issues from becoming big problems. 

I recently co-authored a report with Sharyn Tejani of the National Women’s Law Center, What Works at Work: Promising Practices to Prevent and Respond to Sexual Harassment in Low Paid Jobs. The report highlighted recommendations shared by workers, organizers, litigators, advocates, and social scientists who attended a two-day convening hosted by the National Women’s Law Center and the Urban Institute. The presenters and participants examined practices shown to be effective by research or through on-the-ground experience for preventing and addressing workplace sexual harassment. 

A key focus of the convening was how to better train employees and managers to prevent and respond to harassment. The presenters and participants offered a number of recommendations to rethink harassment training:

  • Training should be interactive through activities, role-playing, discussions, and demonstrations. Problem-solving and skills-building exercises can address how to identify harassment and retaliation, promote effective communication, provide constructive criticism, speak up and confront a harasser, and support individuals who come forward.
  • Training should come from a trusted messenger, who may be an outside expert, a knowledgeable supervisor, or a peer. 
  • Training should be tailored to the needs of the workforce, considering the culture and how harassment manifests. Involving workers in planning and conducting the training can help to tailor training to specific needs.
  • Training must be accessible, considering the languages that are spoken by employees, literacy levels, access to technology, and the physical location. 
  • Training can teach skills to empower bystanders to disrupt harassment. Active bystanders can intervene in the situation, reach out to an individual who faces harassment, or approach a supervisor.
  • Training should be evaluated through surveys, tests, or discussions to adapt to better meet the needs of the workforce.  
  • Training should be regular. Just as with any other subject of training in the workplace, employees should be trained, observed, critiqued, and retrained. 

As to this final point, employers should not put training on hold while many employees are working remotely and connecting online due to COVID-19. Interactive, web-based programs allow employees to actively participate in training by video through live discussions and online chat functions. 

By implementing these recommendations, training can adapt to better promote safe and respectful workplaces.  

Working IDEAL offers customized online training on issues including harassment, discrimination, retaliation, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Contact us here to learn more about the services we offer.

2019 Highlights

  • John Jay College Campus Climate Review.  Working IDEAL was selected after a competitive process to lead a Campus Climate Review to provide the John Jay community and leadership with a better understanding of its current culture and climate as it relates to diversity and inclusion and the prevention of harassment and sexual violence. The Review included focus groups, leadership conversations, and review of existing climate and diversity data and reports. To read the final report, visit the college’s public web page for the project: Learn More.
  • City of Cambridge Recruitment, Hiring and Promotion Project.  Working IDEAL successfully won the bid to conduct a DEI assessment of recruitment, hiring and promotion practices.  Over the past eight months, we have conducted department level interviews, begun to review data and completed a survey of all City employees.  In early 2020 we will begin a focus group process and prepare a report and recommendations.
  • DataCamp, Inc. Independent Third-Party Review. Working IDEAL conducted a third-party assessment for DataCamp, an educational technology start-up, in the wake of an alleged incident involving its CEO. The Working IDEAL team investigated the incident and the company’s response, evaluated culture and climate and recommended improvements to strengthen the company going forward. The Working IDEAL final report is available here: Learn More.
  • Nonprofit Advising on DEI and Compensation. Working IDEAL has completed several projects for national nonprofit organizations, including the Center for American Progress (a DEI assessment and a series of in-person trainings for all staff), the Humane Society of the United States (a pay equity study and recommendations on compensation program design) and the National Women’s Law Center (a pay equity review and development of a new compensation framework and policy). These organizations sought Working IDEAL out because of our approach and values.  We have been approached by three other similar organizations over the past several months as a result.
  • Friends of Bernie Sanders. In the wake of high-profile concerns raised by 2016 campaign staff about sexual harassment and workplace culture, Jenny, Rene and Pam facilitated a dialogue with former campaign staff and management, developing a process to collect feedback and use to it identify best practices for safe, inclusive and equitable campaign work. This work resulted in an innovative Blueprint for Campaign Equity, released by the Sanders campaign and available here: Learn More.

Decades of Well-Meaning Responses to Sexual Harassment Have Failed. Can We Do Better?

Image of Gavel Scales and BooksIt’s finally out there for everyone to see. Not just that sexual harassment and sexual assault pervades the workplace — but that decades of well-meaning responses have failed. Sexual harassment training has little to show for itself, and might even be counter-productive. Human resources departments and reporting mechanisms are have conflicting mandates and little institutional power, making them ineffective or even complicit in covering up harassment. Formal policies primarily designed to satisfy the lawyers are unlikely to protect workers from the harm of harassers in their workplace.

Employers still frequently turn to these three core interventions — training, complaint procedures, and written policies — that we know are fundamentally broken. It’s time to take a hard look at how we respond to sexual harassment and other forms of workplace discrimination, and identify better tools and more effective approaches.

Researchers who study harassment, bias and discrimination in the workplace have been telling us for years that typical training, reporting procedures and workplace policies don’t measure up. The kind of mandatory, compliance-focused, one-time training that is quite popular isn’t designed to address the deep cultural and structural reasons sexual harassment persistsWe have good reason to doubt whether training can improve behavior — and we are worried it might increase the chances of backlash.  Setting up a grievance procedure or writing a sexual harassment policy, especially when it is primarily a lawyer-driven risk management tool, can become a “check the box exercise” in mere symbolic compliance. And one recent study highlights how gendered frameworks and cultural cues may affect how people interpret these policies, making it easier to protect harassers from accountability.

All that is validated as we hear more and more individual stories, of women (and men) who tried to stop abusers and report harassment and assault and were ignored or even punished for speaking up. Which only led others to conclude it simply wasn’t worth it to report – or to intervene as bystanders.

So what do we do instead?

First instead of turning to generic “sexual harassment training,” think broadly about organizational learning strategies and how your workforce can be a resource rather than an audience. Employees at all levels are a wildly underutilized resource, even though they often understand best how to make their workplaces better. Engage employees to be more effective bystanders and empower affinity groups and internal committees to provide a collective voice for the interests of workers experiencing harassment and sexual violence at work. If your workplace is unionized, management should partner with worker representatives to establish safe and effective reporting systems. And when you use training, target learning agendas in ways that make sense, like ensuring every supervisor understands their responsibility to prevent and address workplace bias and to build an inclusive culture.

Don’t just assign your HR office to handle complaints on the side — build a real and independent function that provides safety to workers who report and holds individuals who violate workplace rules and norms accountable. That might mean an internal ombudsperson who has the clout and integrity to conduct meaningful investigations and deal with real problems, or an external service that helps workers strategize confidentially and get support, or some combination of these approaches. Organizations that lack accountability and transparent and effective complaint procedures are more vulnerable to harassment.

And understand your policy as not just a written document but a whole set of practices and structures that guide how your workplace operates and its level of equity. Organizations should look at who holds power and whether women have an equal opportunity to advance and address those issues.  Companies that have higher levels of gender equity seem to have better track records when it comes to workplace harassment. While it’s no guarantee against harassing conduct, it may help and is important in its own right.

Finally, remember that gender-based sexual harassment is just one of the ways bias and abuse can manifest in the workplace — and that it can exist alongside and interact with harassment and discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and the whole spectrum of identities we bring to work.

Our national conversation about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace is long overdue. And we should take the opportunity for an equally overdue reckoning with these well-meaning but failed responses. Building an inclusive and safe workplace is not just about the right intent.  It takes commitment. Employers who are ready to ask the hard questions about what works and rethink their approaches have the chance to be real leaders in the fight against harassment.