The New York Times ran an article on December 11, 2017, titled, “Sexual Harassment Training Doesn’t Work. But Some Things Do.”
The article describes sexual harassment training as an exercise that consists of “clicking through a PowerPoint, checking a box that you read the employee handbook or attending a mandatory seminar at which someone lectures about harassment while attendees glance at their phones.” According to the article, the type of training to which we’re accustomed fails to achieve what should be the primary goal – preventing sexual harassment in the first place – because training is geared towards providing a defense to liability.
I don’t agree that training “doesn’t work.” Training absolutely is a vital and necessary component of any anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy. Without training, employees may not know the company’s stance on harassment and discrimination (hopefully, that the company won’t tolerate it) and may not know how to report harassment or discrimination (particularly if they did not read your employee handbook).
I do agree, however, that certain types of training are better than others. In my opinion, live, in-person training, where attendees are less easily distracted, is preferable to computer-based training, where employees may be listening with half an ear or less. That said, I recognize that in-person training may not be practical or possible for all employers, particularly large employers or employers with multiple locations.
I also agree that prevention, not liability avoidance, should be the primary goal of training. But, if you’re successful at prevention, you’ve likely made significant progress towards reducing the risk of liability.
Training, however, is not enough to prevent harassment and discrimination. Prevention starts with culture, and establishing and maintaining the proper culture starts at the top. Senior management must, by words and actions, demonstrate that equality is paramount and that harassing and discriminatory conduct will not be tolerated. It’s about leading by example, which means refraining from sexual (or otherwise inappropriate) banter, jokes, comments, and touching. It’s also about recognizing that conduct that may have been commonplace 30 years ago may not be acceptable today (and may not have been acceptable 30 years ago either).
The New York Times article lays out a handful of other ways to achieve prevention:
- Bystander Training. Train the “bystander” who witnesses harassment to intervene when the harassment is observed (“Hey, that joke was inappropriate.”), to address the issue with the perpetrator privately (“You’re aware that the joke you told Jane was inappropriate, right?”), or to address the issue with the victim privately (“I heard what John said. Are you ok with that?”).
- Civility Training. During training, instead of focusing solely on what employees can’t do (“don’t touch,” “don’t tell dirty jokes”), also focus on what employees should do, such as praise colleagues’ work and recognize colleagues’ contributions.
- Consider Frequency. As stated in the article, “Thinking you can change that [the abuse of power] in a one-hour session is absurd. You’re not going to just order some bagels and hope it goes away.” In other words, one-time training during onboarding may not be enough. What is enough will depend upon your culture and work environment. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
- Promote Equality Through Promotion. Look around you. Do you have women and minorities in management positions? Send the desired message through your actions and personnel decisions.
- Encourage reporting by offering rewards to managers whose departments show an increase in reporting (because, arguably, that means employees have faith in the reporting system). For me, this counterintuitive idea is a little too far “out there.” Unless somebody can convince me otherwise, I’ll give this idea thumbs-down.
- Encourage reporting by creating an “escrow” procedure, under which an employee can create a time-stamped complaint that is “released” as an official report only if another employee complains about the same perpetrator. I have trouble backing this idea. If the goal is to prevent harassment and discrimination, then employees should be given an incentive to report immediately, not to wait until the perpetrator strikes again.
Every company has (or should have) the same goal – to eliminate harassment and discrimination and to create an environment where all feel welcome. How you achieve that goal is up to debate, and what works for one company may not work for your company. There are several recipes for success. Talk to your employment lawyer about what may work best for your company.